Chipotle feeds into illegitimate GMO

Chipotle became the first major national restaurant chain to stop using genetically modified organisms in its ingredients on April 27. GMOs are produced when the genes from one organism are inserted into the DNA of another organism. Crops are commonly modified this way. Ninety-four percent of soybeans and 93 percent of corn—two common Chipotle ingredients—grown in the U.S. in 2014 were genetically modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

Chipotle’s website cites three major reasons for shifting to non-GMO ingredients—a lack of scientific evidence as to the long-term effects of GMOs, possible environmental damage and increased transparency for consumers. Chipotle’s move sounds bold, but numerous scientific studies contradict claims that GMO foods are harmful. 

The FDA strictly regulates genetically modified crops. A 2001 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization concluded that the use of genetically modified ingredients does not automatically pose a risk to human health. 

In a 2012 statement, the American Association for the Advancement of Science said movements calling for the labeling of genetically modified food are “not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous.” The AAAS declared that GMOs are safe and are the “most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply” by the FDA.

By eliminating GMO ingredients from its menu, Chipotle is feeding into the widespread public opposition against GMOs without substantial scientific evidence to support that opposition. Chipotle’s website says, “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.” This claim completely disregards “a decade of EU-funded GMO research” that found GMOs have no harmful effects on human health and are safe for consumption in all forms. 

Growing genetically modified crops has agricultural perks. Fewer pesticides and herbicides are needed, and fewer greenhouse emissions are unleashed. If a crop is genetically modified, its nutritional value can be increased.

The appeal of opposing GMOs may be the result of cognitive biases, according to the paper, “Fatal attraction: the Intuitive Appeal of GMO Opposition.”

The paper, published in the April edition of Trends in Plant Science, found GMO opposition to be deeply rooted in two psychological factors—essentialism and teleological/intentional thinking.

Essentialism, or the belief that an organism’s essence is transferred when it is genetically modified, comes from a misunderstanding of how organisms are genetically modified. According to a 2004 survey conducted by researchers at the State University of New Jersey, 58 percent of respondents thought inserting catfish DNA into a tomato would make the tomato taste like fish. 

Teleological and intentional thinking can manifest in both religious and secular communities in the U.S. and Europe, according to Stefaan Blancke, lead author of the paper and a philosopher at Ghent University in Belgium.  

“As a social species, we are also very inclined to think about completely natural things in terms of intentions,” Blancke said. “In creationism God has created the world, but in more secular places, you also find these notions of Mother Nature, where it’s a very beneficial person that takes care of us and has plans we shouldn’t meddle with. You get claims that scientists are playing God and that [genetically modified food] is unnatural, [and that] if it’s unnatural, it’s probably not good.”

The opposition to GMOs ultimately represents the disconnect between scientists and the public. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of the general public said they felt genetically modified foods were not safe to consume, whereas 88 percent of AAAS scientists said GMOs are generally safe.

Although Chipotle’s decision to eliminate GMOs may be considered commendable by some, it is not supported by scientific evidence. By making claims on its website about how the move is a step to “serve the best ingredients,” Chipotle is only contributing to the lack of understanding between public and scientific communities, as well as feeding the trend toward diets with no scientific backing.