Chipotle’s GMO- (and evidence-) free marketing strategy

In a (not very) bold move, the restaurant chain Chipotle has announced that they are moving to a completely GMO-free menu. Reading the NYTimes article, there is a startling lack of explanation for why the chain is spending the effort and additional cost to source certified GMO-free ingredients:

Chipotle’s chefs preferred sunflower oil but finding enough was tricky. Chipotle found a farmer willing to increase his production of sunflower, but the company needed more oil than he could produce.

So instead of using one oil for the majority of its needs, Chipotle now uses sunflower to fry its chips and tortillas, while a non-G.M.O. rice bran oil will be mixed into rice and used to fry fajita vegetables.

Given that there has never been a single reputable article to support the claims of the anti-GMO crowd that GMOs are harmful, and given the 20-plus years of crops with genetically-engineered traits raised and eaten, the reason for a major chain to do this seems baffling. Then, this:

So Chipotle’s flour tortillas are now made with a non-G.M.O. canola oil, which costs more, and the company said last week that it might have to raise prices slightly this year.

So, given the lack of scientific evidence indicating a difference, why are they doing it? Marketing, I think. It’s brilliant, really. They have chosen a marketing strategy that pays for itself by justifying higher prices, borrowing a page from the Whole Foods playbook. Never mind that there is nothing wrong with GMO foods, there doesn’t have to be. Just by marketing the fact that their food is not GMO, they are able to set up a (false) dichotomy in consumers’ minds, planting the idea that perhaps GMO foods are not as healthy. And they don’t even have to make a case, really, because just to suggest a difference is enough. It doesn’t matter that they are playing a game of ‘cooties’ or ‘cheese touch‘, as long as it works to devalue the other options.

Here is Chipotle’s page explaining the decision. It comes down to 2 reasons (their 3rd is just preference): 1) GMOs need to be studied more, which is really the precautionary principle — prove no harm — which is quite difficult to do; and 2) GMOs harm the environment. These are the planks of the anti-GMO party platform, and both have been roundly refuted. Perhaps the fact that we now have definitive evidence that the exact same process of genetic engineering has been occurring in the wild for millions of years will help to convince some that there is no inherent risk in the technology itself?

Anyway, go ahead and enjoy a 1200-calorie GMO-free burrito. Whatever you do, though, don’t even think about washing it down with a Coke. That stuff is LOADED with sugar from GMOs! I wonder why they’re still selling that?

All crops are genetically modified

A few days ago Kevin Folta, a colleague whose main research focuses on strawberry genetics and crop improvement, tweeted a link to an interview he did with HuffPost Science. The video sums up a lot of the same ideas I try to communicate in my classes about genetically-modified foods, both their risks and their benefits. The post on HuffPo Science has received almost 2000 comments as of this writing, so it clearly struck a nerve.

One of the points he makes is that humans have been doing genetic modification for tens of thousands of years. All of our crop plants are the result of mutation, selection, natural hybridization, and in some cases, deliberate hybridization. There is no such thing as ‘natural corn’ — it is the product of human civilization and could not survive without us. And when genetic modification happens naturally or through traditional plant breeding, whole genomes are scrambled. Modern genetic engineering allows targeted access to a single gene at a time, either by inserting a new, well-studied gene into a plant, or regulating the expression of an existing gene. But for some reason, the backlash against the modern, targeted approach is far beyond that of other techniques.

Sometimes the backlash is motivated by a disdain for the large companies that control so much of our food supply (and our politicians). But there is also a genuine fear that scientists are messing around with things they don’t understand and it will kill us all, or at least seriously mess up our lives and environments. I am all in favor of testing new crops for human and environmental safety. I believe crop biotechnology deserves neither a free pass nor impossible regulations. To hold transgenic crops to a standard that they be proven to do no harm to an ecosystem (an effectively impossible claim to uphold) when no other crop has ever been held to such a standard is hypocritical.

Herbicide Tolerance in the Fields

I’ve had a chance to drive I-71 through southwestern Ohio a few times this fall, and I can’t help but notice the explosion of weeds in the soybean fields this year. I’m guessing almost all larger growers are using Roundup-Ready soybeans, a genetically-engineered cultivar that allows growers to control weeds with the potent herbicide, Roundup. This herbicide is actually an enzyme inhibitor which, when present, prohibits the plant from making aromatic amino acids, killing them. Roundup-Ready crops have a gene originating from bacteria that encodes the target enzyme. This variant of the enzyme is less inhibited by Roundup, allowing the crop to survive even in the presence of Roundup.

Because of its combination of specificity and relatively short half-life in the soil, Roundup has been considered a once-in-a-lifetime herbicide, not likely to be matched anytime soon. And now, because of misapplication and overuse, we are seeing the artificial selection of plants with tolerance for Roundup, rendering it an ineffective herbicide in certain locations. The implications of losing Roundup are huge, as it has been a key enabler for no-till agriculture practice, which helps improve soil structure and reduce soil erosion.