Profiting from ignorance
Chipotle’s decision to stop serving GMOs is socially irresponsible
By now many of us have heard that America’s favorite “fast casual restaurant” — Chipotle “Mexican” Grill — has gone GMO-free. Although Chipotle’s decision represents the singular action of a private company, it still speaks to the increasing success of the anti-GMO movement. And while private companies have every right to decide what products they sell, Chipotle’s decision to pander to the anti-GMO movement is dangerous and irresponsible.
Chipotle’s website offers three reasons for its decision to stop using GMO ingredients. The first reason suggests that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. In fact, the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization, and European Commission have all found GMOs to be safe. A recent meta-study of 1,783 studies on GMOs concluded that “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE [GMO] crops.”
The company’s second claim is that GMOs damage the environment. It cites a single study in support of this claim and conveniently ignores the fact that it was authored by Charles Benbrook, a consultant for The Organic Center. In his study, Benbrook uses data that does not distinguish between pesticide use on GMO vs. non-GMO crops. He deliberately ignores complete data sets and makes wild extrapolations from short-term trends. In fact, a 2014 meta-analysis published in PLOS ONE concluded that GMOs have increased crop yields by 22 percent while reducing chemical pesticide usage by 37 percent. GMOs can also generally be grown on less land with less tillage, reducing water use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Chipotle’s third reason for going GMO-free is the only honest one, having to do with expanding its customer base and improving its bottom line. The company acknowledges that it “decided to remove … GMOs … so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle.” The chain knows that its claims about the safety of GMOs are misleading — NPR quoted a Chipotle spokesperson saying, “we didn’t say we were doing this because we think GMO foods are not healthy” — but that knowledge has not stopped Chipotle from attempting to profit off of erroneous beliefs.
Financially speaking, Chipotle’s decision is probably wise. A 2014 ABC poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe GMOs are unsafe. By removing GMOs from its restaurants, Chipotle will become more accessible to the general public while distinguishing itself from struggling fast food chains like McDonald’s.
Chipotle is not the first company to capitalize on health-related paranoia, either. Whole Foods is another successful example. To be clear, I fully support these companies’ rights to stop using GMOs. That does not mean, however, that I support their decisions to exercise that right. Chipotle’s decision may be financially prudent, but it is socially irresponsible.
When people speak about corporate responsibility, they generally mean that businesses should work on behalf of society as a whole rather than simply on behalf of shareholders. Even if Chipotle is responding to the public’s demand for GMO-free fast food, a shunning of GMO products is not in the public’s long-term interest. The scientific literature shows not only that GMOs are safe for humans and the environment, but that they actually allow us to produce more food with less environmental impact. And although a 2015 survey from Oklahoma State University found that 82 percent of American support mandatory labeling of GMO products, it also found that 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling for foods containing DNA. Companies that try to boost profits by perpetuating scientific ignorance deserve reproach.
As a person who values private enterprise, I fully support Chipotle’s right to stop serving GMOs. As a person who values integrity more than profitability, however, I should let Chipotle know that it won’t be serving me.
Collin Vierra is a member of the Class of 2015.