As a self-proclaimed Chipotle addict, my burrito bowl never changes: white rice, no beans, chicken, and fajita veggies; just a little pico de gallo, corn salsa, cheese, lettuce, and guacamole.
I eat Chipotle at least twice a week because of its reliable menu, fast service, and (relatively) affordable cost.
And just last month, Chipotle made headlines for their latest announcement: they’re doing away with GMO ingredients completely. Chipotle is the first major restaurant chain to serve all non-GMO food.
We’re now making all of the food at our US restaurants with only non-GMO ingredients: http://t.co/lkmlXvasHC -Joe
— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) April 27, 2015
At first glance, that sounds pretty great. But does going non-GMO prove to me that they’re worth supporting, or is it just a big ol’ publicity stunt?
Before we dive into the world of Chipotle’s latest decision, we need to define what GMOs are, how they work, why we use them, and why they’re so controversial.
What’s the Deal with GMOs?
GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are used to create “better” crops—and GMOs are in much of the food we buy, and the household products we use.
As far as public opinion goes, GMOs have gotten a bad rap: according to a Pew Research Study, over 63% of Americans today don’t trust GMOs. (That’s compared to only 12% of scientists, who believe that GMOs aren’t safe to eat.) Part of that concern may stem from the lack of labeling on GMO-created foods: USA Today reported that 92% of consumers want to know if the foods they’re eating are genetically modified, but currently, GMO foods aren’t required to be labeled as such.
I admit, I’m skeptical of GMOs, too. The words genetically modified organism have a negative connotation. When I first heard about them, I assumed that they were similar to cigarettes and tanning beds, two things that we know are extremely toxic to our bodies.
But are GMOs truly harmful? Last fall, comedian Jimmy Kimmel interviewed patrons of his local farmers market to get their opinions of GMOs. Most shoppers didn’t know what the acronym GMO stood for, let alone why they didn’t like them.
What Are GMOs, And How Do They Work?
GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques—taking genes from one species and inserting them into another to obtain a desired characteristic. Genetic engineering techniques directly manipulate an organism’s genetic material (e.g., DNA and RNA).
GMOs allow scientists to alter an organism’s genes in an effort to change the outcome of how the organism functions.
Why Do We Use GMOs?
We use GMOs for a lot, actually. GMOs are in between 40-75% of our food supply (although the amount in most of these food items is very small). Most commonly, sugar beets (where we get refined sugar from!), vegetable oils, corn syrup, soybeans, feed corn, and papayas have GMO components.
Globally, GMOs do even more. GMOs are used in malnourished countries to add nutrients to crops. They’re aiding in the quest to create plants that are more resistant to weeds and other dangerous crop-killing diseases. GMOs are even reducing pollution; in 2009, they reduced CO2 emissions by 39 billion pounds. Inserting natural proteins into the DNA of a plant creates a GMO seed, allowing farmers to grow their grain more efficiently and take better care of their soil and water resources.
Currently, the FDA considers GMOs to be substantively the same as non-GMO products, and considers them safe to eat.
Are GMO-Free Restaurants #AntiScience?
So besides not wanting to have food that’s a science fiction experiment, what’s the problem with GMOs?
Chiefly, the increased use of pesticides: because GMO crops are bred to tolerate heavy pesticide use (to kill weeds and insects), there’s concern that pesticides may transfer to people who eat GMOs, or that pesticide use may create new, more harmful bacteria. The non-profit organization Non-GMO Project, states that the use of GMOs has single-handedly led to the rise of chemical agriculture. And according to the organization, the majority of companies who have released studies claiming GMOs to be safe are the very companies who profit from their sale.
The Bottom Line
I get it—the idea of regulating the use of GMOs is a good one. But is it responsible to do so? Not necessarily, says research biologist Heidi Windler:
“The entire process of evolution is dependent upon mutation … the GMO scare is just a distraction from far more important issues in the food industry.”
These “important issues” include the fact that the companies controlling the majority of GMO usage are mega-corporations with bad reputations, like Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont—companies that are working to sell more pesticides, and put smaller farms out of business.
Dr. Margaret Smith, professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University, believes GMOs aren’t easily categorized as “all good” or “all bad”:
“The picture is complex. If you only point to a part of it, you can probably find a part that supports the argument you wish to make.”
That means that GMOs shouldn’t be branded as evil, or championed as a perfect solution. Chipotle’s decision to steer clear of GMOs says a lot about popular opinion, and less on taking a stand on a scientific debate.
So before you hop on the celebration of Chipotle-getting-rid-of-GMOs train, it’s up to you—as a conscious consumer—to decide if the good outweighs the bad. My stance? The advances in modern science, and the ability to combat nutrient deficiencies and reduce our carbon footprint, most definitely outweighs the bad.
But does Chipotle’s decision to stop using GMO ingredients warrant me cutting my favorite weekday lunch?
Eh, not so much. As a conscious consumer, this is one of those issues where I give myself some wiggle room. I don’t think that Chipotle’s decision is right or wrong because there are valid arguments on both sides of this issue.
And until scientific evidence comes out that proves GMOs to be completely harmful or categorically good, bring on the guac!
Becca Tuck is a senior at Kennesaw State University studying Technical Communication. She’s a true crime show enthusiast, podcast junkie, and animal lover, who loves soaking in as much knowledge on linguistic phenomenons as she can. When not at the baseball fields cheering on her two favorite baseball players, you can find her on her website or on Twitter at @beccatuck85.