Updated on June 5, 2018
Chipotle Mexican Grill’s view of life beyond its doors is pretty disturbing for a burrito chain. A few years ago it released an animated short film that showed a scarecrow poking around a dusty, dystopian world where long tubes extrude “beef-ish” meat, mechanical milkers suck cows dry and robots repeatedly stab chickens with hormone-filled needles. The intended message was clear: Big Food is ruining the planet, Chipotle’s 1,900 locations and hundreds of suppliers notwithstanding.
So it came as little surprise when Chipotle said last spring it was ridding its U.S. restaurants of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The term refers to plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to resist pests, disease or even commercial herbicides by inserting genes from other species. Critics dubbed such products “Frankenfoods” and have called for mandatory labels, if not outright bans. Chipotle declared it was “G-M-Over it.”
While Chipotle’s anti-GMO stance seemingly jibes with its “Food with integrity” promise (which, incidentally, took a hit last year when more than 500 people in a dozen U.S. states contracted food-borne illnesses after eating at its restaurants) the company’s explanation for going GMO-free begs credulity. “We don’t believe the scientific community has reached consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption,” Chipotle says on its website, implying a level of familiarity with the life sciences not normally associated with fast-casual restaurants. Chipotle goes on to cite a 2012 study documenting increased use of herbicide and pesticides on GM crops and speculates ominously about an “escalating arms race with weeds and insects.”
Such is the nature of the emotional, often hyperbolic debate around GM foods, which first reared their head in the 1990s when agri-giant Monsanto introduced varieties of canola, corn, cotton and soybean genetically engineered to be resistant to its Roundup brand of herbicide. On the one side are seed companies and farmers, who like the convenience and improvements in crop yield. On the other are activists who are concerned about unforeseen health and environmental impacts. A hungry, confused public is caught in between.
But the discussion shows signs of undergoing an important shift in tone—in part because of climate change. Not only do companies like Monsanto profess to have the tools to feed a world increasingly stricken by drought and pestilence, but the listen-to-the-science mantra that environmental groups espouse when taking on climate-change skeptics has proven difficult to square with their anti-GMO campaigns, which tend to gloss over much of the available scientific research on GM foods. In 2013, British environmentalist and author Mark Lynas became one of the first to publicly admit his anti-GMO stance had become “intellectually incompetent and dishonest,” while U.S. TV personality and science educator Bill Nye (the Science Guy) last year revisited his cautious outlook on GMOs after visiting Monsanto’s St. Louis labs. In February, state-owned ChemChina agreed to pay US$43 billion for Swiss agricultural giant Syngenta, which sells both conventional and GM seeds. That’s more than double what China National Offshore Oil Corporation paid for Canadian oil and gas firm Nexen back in 2012, demonstrating that the country of 1.3 billion clearly places strategic importance on boosting the efficiency of its farmland.
Of course, none of this is to say GM foods are perfect—only that they’ve been unfairly demonized in a society that often conflates “natural” and “healthy.” Like any new technology, there are pros and cons, risks and benefits. But, for the first time in years, the atmosphere seems conducive to a rational discussion about GM food and its potential. That’s a good thing, too, because the industry is busy readying ever more items for the dinner table, including a genetically modified salmon that could soon be bred on Prince Edward Island. We might as well understand what’s on the menu.
Chipotle may be among the most sanctimonious retailers to have taken a stand against GM foods in recent years, but it certainly isn’t alone. Whole Foods has promised to label any GMO products in its stores by 2018. General Mills, meanwhile, said two years ago it would start making its Cheerios breakfast cereal with non-GMO ingredients, as did Post Foods with Grape Nuts. More than 2,000 retailers have signed on to the Non-GMO Project, a third-party verification program acting in the absence of laws requiring mandatory labels on products containing GM ingredients.
It’s not easy being GMO-free, however. Chipotle was forced to add a disclaimer to its GMO tough talk, since the meat and cheese in its burritos and bowls most likely comes from cows and pigs that ate genetically modified feed. The same goes for the beverages sold in its restaurants, “including those containing high-fructose corn syrup, which is almost always made from GMO corn.” Whole Foods similarly explains on its website that about 88 per cent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, as is 95 per cent of sugar beets, 93 per cent of canola and 94 per cent of soybeans. “It’s impossible for us to exclude GMOs as an overarching standard at this time,” the grocer says, adding GMOs are “pervasive” and can be found in 70 per cent of packaged foods.
So what, exactly, have food companies been feeding us? At present, most genetically modified ingredients stem from cereals and crops that have either been engineered to be resistant to specific herbicides, like Monsanto’s Roundup (made with glyphosate), or resistant to certain kinds of pests, as is the case with Bt corn and Bt Cotton (Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium, which is the organism the organic farming industry relies on to make a popular natural pesticide).
More consumer-facing GM products are on the horizon, however, and Canada has emerged as an unexpected leader in the field. Summerland, B.C.’s Okanagan Specialty Fruits last year received approval from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to grow and sell the world’s first non-browning GM apples in this country after figuring out how to “turn off” the gene that makes the flesh discolour. Similarly, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last fall for the world’s first genetically modified fish. The AquaAdvantage salmon is a farm-raised Atlantic salmon imbued with growth hormone genes from a Chinook salmon and an eel-like creature called an ocean pout. The changes allow it to grow much more quickly—a potential boon for the aquaculture industry. Health Canada signed off on GM salmon for Canadian consumption and before recieving that approval, AquaBounty’s CEO Ronald Stotish was optimistic. “We are hopeful the Canadian government will approve our application just as the U.S. FDA has done,” he says. (Both Okanagan Specialty Fruits and AquaBounty are owned by a U.S. conglomerate called Intrexon, whose name and slogan—“A better world through better DNA”—seems inspired by the 1982 movie Blade Runner.)
Needless to say, such petri-dish creations run opposite to the current Western obsession with all manner of “natural” and “authentic” food trends. Free-range. Nose-to-tail. Organically grown. Basically anything reminiscent of how one’s great-grandparents once subsisted, minus the subsistence part. It’s here where the gulf between agribusiness and consumers once seemed insurmountable—that is, until the drumbeat of science became too difficult to ignore.
There is now a long list of national bodies that suggest approved GMOs are no riskier to eat than conventionally produced food. In addition to regulators, they include: the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the Royal Society of Medicine, the World Health Organization and the European Commission (even though more than a dozen European countries want to ban GM crops). Moreover, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of scientists who belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 88 per cent believe it is safe to eat GM foods, compared to just 37 per cent of the public at large. That’s slightly higher (one percentage point) than the number of scientists who believed climate change was “mostly due to human activity.” Given that just about everything we eat, from apricots to zucchini, has been genetically modified though selective breeding practices, astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up the feelings of many within the scientific community when, two years ago, he suggested anti-GMO activists should just “chill out.”
Does that mean there are zero concerns? Not exactly. About 300 European scientists and legal experts signed a joint letter a few years ago that said, in effect, there wasn’t yet enough evidence to say GMOs are completely safe, or unsafe for that matter. Similarly, a study last year by a researcher at Tufts University highlighted about two dozen studies where GMOs were fed to animals that later showed adverse effects or “health uncertainties.” The author, sensibly, recommended trying to replicate the results “to see if they hold up to rigorous testing.” The WHO says on its website that “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”
Critics’ concerns go beyond safety. Many have also complained about the agricultural industry’s heavy-handed tactics, including patenting GM seeds and then suing farmers who save seed and replant without a licence. Others are worried about cross-contamination, since some farmers, particularly organic ones, could be locked out of some markets if GM seeds are carried onto their land by birds or wind. At the same time, recent studies have shown increased spraying of glyphosate over the past decade as GM crops were quickly adopted around the world, suggesting the emergence of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” (a problem, it should be noted, not strictly limited to GM crops). “It’s been 20 years since the first genetically modified crops were approved in Canada,” says Lucy Sharratt, the Ottawa-based coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a coalition of farmer, environmental and international development organizations with concerns about genetic engineering. “But there’s been no evaluation from the federal government as to the risks and benefits of that experiment.”
Andreas Boecker, an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s department of food, agricultural and resource economics, argues that the sooner Canadians realize GMOs are neither a magical cure nor a pox on humanity, the better. “It would be a big mistake to ban a technology for more or less ideological reasons,” he says. “Where the debate has to go to be productive is to look at risk management.” He likens GM food to automobiles in this respect, noting thousands die in traffic accidents but we continue to drive because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The one difference with GM foods, Boecker says, is each one is unique, meaning “we have to look at every single product case-by-case.”
It’s for this reason that calls for mandatory labelling of GM foods have been so controversial. While groups like CBAN argue consumers have a right to know what they’re buying, food companies counter that government-mandated labels imply a hidden danger, and note GM foods are more extensively safety-tested than conventional varieties. Nye, for his part, has argued the industry should slap “proudly GMO” labels on its products and let the market decide—which may not actually be as suicidal as it sounds. The Arctic apple, after all, trumpets its non-browning qualities as its main selling point. Similarly, the AquaAdvantage salmon is being pitched as a more sustainable alternative, since the fish “can be produced in land-based facilities closer to population centres, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of transportation.” It’s conceivable that future GM foods may offer even more attractive advantages.
One thing’s for certain: GM technologies aren’t going anywhere. Florida orange growers are looking to genetic technology to help them battle citrus greening disease. Bananas, another at-risk monoculture, may also need a GM fix to keep them on supermarket shelves. Others see a bright future for drought-resistant GM crops as farmers around the world grapple with climate change.
Even Chipotle might not be immune. Two years ago the burrito chain warned that its popular guacamole could be at risk if severe weather events, expected to become more frequent as global temperatures warm, caused avocado prices to spike. The Internet went into panic mode. It thus remains to be seen what Chipotle executives find most scary: a future full of “unnatural” GM foods, or one populated by millions of irate customers.