Why We Should Neither Be Anti- or Pro-GMO, but Support Chipotle

There is a scientist crossing coffee trees with scorpion venom in South America.

While this sounds like a great start to a new comic book series, I’m not sure I’d want to start my mornings with that cup of coffee. Would you? I’d rather not grow a tail by lunch. Like where would I find pants?

This fear of mine isn’t based on any rational scientific understanding, but simply from watching and reading science fiction movies. That said, I’m okay with that. It sounds creepy and as long as there are other options, I will continue to choose non-scorpion venom coffee.

In my book Where Am I Eating? I met  Dr. Alvaro Gaitan, the head of plant pathology at the Cenicafe research center in Colombia. He showed me a glowing room filled with genetically modified seedlings. Such plants are often referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

According to Alvaro, the world isn’t ready for genetically modified coffee yet; there’s simply no market for it. However, as the changing climate continues to threaten the coffee supply and the price of a cup of coffee increases, consumers will be more open to the notion of GMOs.

Our outrage has a price ceiling.

At Cenifcafé, they just cross coffee with coffee. But without labeling or proper regulation it could be difficult for us to know what we are consuming in the future.

Chipotle Says NO to GMOs!

Last month Chipotle announced that they were going GMO-free (except for their high fructose corn syrup-laden Coca-Cola soft drinks). Consumers were demanding it. Chipotle stock shot up after the announcement.

Now in the interest of full disclosure: I freaking love Chipotle! I’m a chicken burrito with black beans and all the spicy fixings kind of guy. And I’ll often (despite knowing how horrible it is for my health) wash my burrito down with a Coke. Chipotle is fast food that doesn’t make me feel like poop thirty minutes after eating it. I plan road trip routes around Chipotles.

The New York Times says Chipotle’s decision to eliminate GMOs from their food is one based on listening to consumers and not scientists.

Many scientist believe that GMOs don’t pose a risk to human health. This from a study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine:

Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.

But many believe the verdict is not out on the science of GMOs impact on human health.

From Consumer Report:

“A joint commission of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has established a protocol for evaluating the safety of GMOs, which it says have the potential to introduce toxins and new allergens (or increase levels of existing ones), or cause nutritional changes in foods and other unexpected effects. Other developed nations have used those guidelines in their mandatory premarket safety assessments for genetically modified organisms. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require any safety assessment of genetically engineered crops, though it invites companies to provide data for a voluntary safety review.”

 GMOs having the potential to “introduce toxins and new allergens” or “cause . . . other unexpected effects” leaves me with plenty of concern as does the FDA’s lack of a safety assessment. Given the choice to consume a GMO or non-GMO food, I’d choose the latter. Of course more than 70% of processed food contains GMOs.

(Another confession: I realize that I consume plenty of GMO foods like the mini-Chips Ahoy cookie I just ate while writing that last paragraph.)

I’d like to see more assessment of GMO foods before they hit the market. Personally I feel like the health concern is valid. But . . .

I’m Pro-GMO

Apparently, you are either for or against GMOs. Any debate that becomes “You are either with us or against us” does not leave much room for nuance.

I’m pro- and anti-GMO.

I don’t think altering the genetics of a plant is inherently wrong or a bad thing. Last week Mark Lynas, a researcher with the Cornell Alliance for Science, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled “How I got converted to GMO Food.”

Lynas actively campaigned for years against GMOs. But it was experiences meeting farmers like the ones he met in Bangladesh growing GM eggplants that changed him. The GM eggplants didn’t require the use of pesticides and were helping the farmer lift his family out of poverty, or at least that is the hope.

“In a rational world,” Lynas writes, “Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty.” Yet the GM eggplants are controversial and environmental groups are fighting hard to get the plant banned. There was even concern of violence against the farmers growing the plants.

“I, too, was once in that activist camp,” Lynas continues. “A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind . . . After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.”

So Lynas goes from being anti-GMO to pro-GMO. Just like that? What?

Apparently if you are for one GMO, you must be for all GMOs. If you’ve seen the wonder of a GM eggplant changing lives and offering hope in Bangladesh, you must also be for Roundup Ready corn.

The lack of a middle ground on all modern-day issues drives me crazy. Like, I understand if you are a die-hard Ohio State Buckeyes fan you must hate Michigan, but on most other issues, truth, reality, and reason exist somewhere in the middle.

I’m Anti-GMO

I think GMOs could help farmers combat climate change. Gasp! The Anti-GMO movement must hate me!

But I have plenty of concerns about GMOs.

Genetically modifying organisms is just another way that we, the human race, are trying to out-engineer our immense impact on the planet. Trying to control nature might work for a bit, but nature has proven to be quite uncontrollable (see the fictional example of Godzilla, and the all too real example of Hurricane Katrina flooded by water held above street level).

When agribusiness finds a profitable GM crop, it will exploit that crop as much as possible, diversity be damned. If GMOs further promote monocultures, which I believe they do and will because agribusiness is about making money and not growing food, that’s not a good thing. The more we rely on a single crop, the more at risk we are if that crop fails or a new pest or disease destroys that crop.

GM crops have led to a ten-fold increase in weed killer usage. The most famous GM crops are Roundup ready corn and soybeans. Roundup isn’t good for people or planet.

And now weeds are becoming “superweeds” and resisting common weed killers.  So more weed killer is being applied and a search for new and more chemicals is underway. Experts call this the technology treadmill. The more chemicals and inputs you use, the more chemicals and inputs you need to use in the future.

What Really Scares Me

I feel like the main issue isn’t GMOs themselves, but the mega agro-chemical companies that produce them for large-scale agriculture. More money can be made producing GMOs for high-input farming than developing GMOs that require fewer inputs (fewer sales of chemicals) to poor Bangladeshi farmers.

In this way GMOs take us further from sustainable, low-input farming–farming that my grandfather would recognize, farming that has a more positive impact on people and less of an impact on our planet. And that is the main reason I applaud Chipotle for taking a stand against GMOs.

I don’t think we should be afraid of GMOs or science, but we should be afraid of an industry that has a huge impact on our health and our planet making business decisions based on short-term profits.

Becki says:

Hooray! Someone with a voice that’s heard, basically summing up my feelings about GMOs! I try to look at facts, not anecdotes or hysterical “science is BAD!” rants. As much as many facts make sense for GMOs and are things I can stand behind, and as often as I think about how we will have to change some things to grow in this ever-heating world of ours (because of our other activities), I keep bumping up against things like the Monsanto and RoundUp big business thing. Some GMOs make sense. In some ways, we’ve been genetically modifying our food for generations, and we’ve lived to tell about it. But the whole idea of “our company made this food for you to grow, but you have to keep buying seeds from us to keep growing it” is just plain stupendously rotten.

I’m not a fan of Chipotle food (sorry, I can’t eat beans or spicy foods), but I’m a fan of restaurants trying to improve their offerings for their customers’ health.

Kelsey says:

Becki, happy to validate your thoughts! I find you quite reasonable!

Becky Vigus says:

Panera Breads have joined Chipotle in the no GMO’s, but has carried it to gluten-free also. I am proud to support both companies. I prefer to buy from the local organic farmer when I can.

Kelsey says:

Becky, Panera must be offering gluten-free, right? I mean I just don’t imagine them or anyone going 100% gluten free. That’s hard to do when you have BREAD in your name!

Becky Vigus says:

Kelsey, Panera came out with a list of 100 things they would no longer put in their breads. I believe it said they would be gluten-free. I suspect they will be using corn, oat, rye, tapioca flours in their breads. If I can find the link I’ll send it to you.

Matt says:

Panera is ditching artificial ingredients. Ditching gluten would be a death sentence for a company built on gluten products. https://www.panerabread.com/content/dam/panerabread/documents/panera-no-no-list-05-2015.pdf

Dave Ring says:

Just wanted to make a quick comment and reply to Becki. It’s important to note that we have not been “genetically modifying our food for generations”. This is a very real difference between hybridizing which occurs in nature and genetically modifying which never occurs in nature. The natural cross breeding (hybridizing) process that can be assisted by man (think Gregor Mendel) HAS been going on for generations and it’s works within the boundaries of nature. Genetic Engineering or Modifying first hit our food supply in the mid 90s and involves removing chromosomes from the DNA of a species, a bacteria for instance, and inserting them into the DNA of a completely different species, like a plant. This would never occur in nature, and it’s an important distinction. The Monsanto lobbyists have been trying to confuse people for years by saying it’s the same as hybridizing. It is not.

Let your voice be heard!