Let’s make this clear from the beginning: no, I am not a shill for “MonSatan.” Yes, I am a scientist who does her fair share of genetic manipulation in the laboratory, albeit with herpesvirus DNA and specialized bacteria, not agricultural foodstuffs. Still, it saddens and frustrates me when I see a major corporation basically bask in their consumers’ scientific illiteracy.

Earlier this week, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. announced that they were removing food made from genetically modified organisms (GMO)1 from their restaurants. From their website: “One reason customers love Chipotle is that we use great ingredients. For us this means great taste, but it also means that the food we serve should be made with ingredients raised with care for animals, farmers, and the environment. We’re doubtful that the GMO ingredients that used to be in our food meet these criteria.” Chipotle then goes on to list three reasons why they are against GMOs.2

1) SCIENTISTS ARE STILL STUDYING THE LONG TERM IMPLICATIONS OF GMOS.
Chipotle: “While some studies have shown GMOs to be safe, most of this research was funded by companies that sell GMO seeds and did not evaluate long-term effects. More independent studies are needed. […] we don’t believe the scientific community has reached a consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption.”
It’s more than just “some studies.” The majority of studies show that GMOs are just as safe as conventional foods.3 Furthermore, the website biofortified.org has a search engine for GMO studies (GENERA)4 that shows that “half of GMO research is independent.”5 Has the scientific community reached a consensus about GMOs? You bet it has. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 88% of scientists (from random sample of 3,748 U.S.-based members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) say it is safe to eat genetically modified food.6 The World Health Organization also finds no fault with GMOs: “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”7 I think that this statement from the European Commission sums it up best: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”8

2) THE CULTIVATION OF GMOS CAN DAMAGE THE ENVIRONMENT.
Chipotle: “Evidence suggests that GMOs engineered to produce pesticides or withstand powerful chemical herbicides damage beneficial insect populations and create herbicide resistant super-weeds.”

Table via @WyoWeeds on Twitter
Table via @WyoWeeds on Twitter

This reason is the one that simply defies logic, based on what Chipotle has chosen to replace their GM-soybean oil: sunflower oil. Sunflower oil that is made from herbicide-tolerant sunflowers (albeit non-GMO).9,9a These sunflowers are treated with a pesticide that has resulted in more super-weeds than glyphosate, the herbicide to which some GMOs are resistant.10 Take a look at the table made by Dr. Andrew Kniss (@WyoWeeds on Twitter)11 that summarizes the differences between the GM-soybean oil that Chipotle has ditched and the non-GM sunflower oil that they now use, and then explain how Chipotle’s Reason #2 makes sense. As to their second point, by “damaging beneficial insect populations,” I am going to make an assumption that Chipotle is referring to either colony collapse disorder for bees, or the drop in the monarch butterfly population. To date, neither of these two effects on insect populations have been shown to be due to GMOs, although they are both areas of current research.12,13,14,15,16

3) CHIPOTLE SHOULD BE A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE CAN EAT FOOD MADE WITH NON-GMO INGREDIENTS.
Chipotle: “In our quest to serve the best ingredients, we decided to remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle.”
This is really the only reason that isn’t refuted by science or logic. Chipotle is pandering to the non-GMO crowd, and if they wish to do so, that is their choice. This sentence should be where they begin and end at explaining why they are going GMO free. BUT CHIPOTLE ISN’T ENTIRELY GMO-FREE. By their own admission, the meat they serve (with the exception of their beef from grass-fed cattle) comes from animals fed GMO plants. The sodas and other sugary beverages they sell also contain GMO-derived ingredients. As does the cheese9, although I do not see this fact mentioned on their website.17 I guess in Chipotle’s corporate mind, GMO-plants are bad, but GMO-yeast (which is used to make cheese) is good? GMO-yeast do allow you to skip the whole “slaughtering-a-calf” part of traditional cheese-making rennet, so this does fit in with their view on “food with integrity.”18

ISN’T CHIPOTLE CONTRIBUTING TO UNNECESSARY HYSTERIA ABOUT GMOs? This is an actual question posed on their website.19 Chipotle’s answer is: “We believe the implications of growing and eating GMOs must be studied more by independent scientists who do not have an incentive to produce particular results. [Shill gambit?20 Check] What we do know is that some of the chemicals and toxins [Toxin gambit?21 Check] used in GMO cultivation have caused health and environmental issues, and that is at the very least a reason to be cautious. Caution and hysteria are not the same thing.” One look at the comments on Chipotle’s Facebook page (see the screenshots I’ve posted) shows you that they are most definitely contributing to the spread of misinformation and hysteria regarding GMOs.

Some anti-GMO hysteria on Chipotle's Facebook page
Some anti-GMO hysteria on Chipotle’s Facebook page

 

What is the harm in unfounded anti-GMO hysteria? The loss of genetically modified crops and precious research time due to sabotage 22,23 and delayed approval of a GMO rice crop designed to battle blindness in children who are Vitamin A deficient 24 are just two that come to mind. And, of course, promoting science illiteracy. I don’t think that our reptilian overlords would approve of that.

References:
1) http://untiedmag.com/gmos-primer/
2) http://chipotle.com/gmo
3) https://cosmosmagazine.com/life-sciences/gm-food-safe-according-independent-studies?
4) http://genera.biofortified.org/wp/about/about-genera
5) http://genera.biofortified.org/wp/genera-announces-beta-test-launch
6) http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/
7) http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/
8) http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf
9) https://storify.com/mem_somerville/gmos-herbicides-and-chipotle
9a) http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/03/12/148312077/how-a-sunflower-gene-crossed-the-line-from-weed-to-crop
10) Heap I. The International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds. Wednesday, April 29, 2015. www.weedscience.org
11) https://gmoanswers.com/experts/andrew-kniss
12) http://www.biofortified.org/2015/02/what-makes-honeybee-colonies-collapse/
13) http://www.biofortified.org/2014/06/are-neonicotinoids-the-sole-factor-responsible-for-colony-collapse-disorder/
14) http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/03/25/monsanto-v-monarch-butterflies/
15) http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/03/17/monarch-population-rebounds-as-nrdc-sues-epa-for-not-stopping-armageddon-are-gmos-the-problem/
16) http://mentalfloss.com/article/63536/scientists-sequence-bumblebee-genome-explain-population-decline
17) https://chipotle.com/ingredient-statement
18) http://dwb4.unl.edu/Chem/CHEM869N/CHEM869NLinks/www.ncbe.reading.ac.uk/NCBE/GMFOOD/chymosin.html
19) http://chipotle.com/faq/#?faq-option=GMOs
20) http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Shill_gambit
21) https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/toxic-myths-about-vaccines/
22) http://news.sciencemag.org/asiapacific/2013/08/activists-destroy-golden-rice-field-trial
23) http://upsidedownworld.org/main/news-briefs-archives-68/5231-global-week-of-actions-against-gmo-trees-in-brazil-ends-in-success
24) http://giannini.ucop.edu/media/are-update/files/articles/V17N3_1.pdf