Science & Technology

Chipotle Treats Customers Like Idiots

The burrito chain stokes bogus GMO fears and tries to profit from anti-biotech propaganda.


A Chopotle burrito
tales of a wandering youkai / Flickr

In April, the high-class Mexican food chain Chipotle announced that it was going GMO-free. That is, the company would no longer use ingredients derived from modern biotech crops.

Chipotle says it sells "food with integrity." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines integrity as "the quality of being honest and fair." In making this decision, alas, the company is being neither honest nor fair about the safety and environmental benefits provided by modern genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Chipotle offers three "key reasons" for rejecting genetically modified ingredients. The first: "We don't believe the scientific community has reached a consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption." As evidence for this statement, the company notes that "in October 2013 a group of about 300 scientists from around the world signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption." Three hundred whole scientists!

So who are these GMO rejecters? The cited statement was issued by a notorious anti-biotech claque, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. Signers included people who have made whole punditry careers out of anti-biotech rhetoric, such as Charles Benbrook, Vandana Shiva, and Gilles-Eric Seralini. Benbrook regularly (and incorrectly) claims that planting biotech crops has boosted pesticide applications; Vandana Shiva lies about biotech crop failures causing farmer suicides in India; Seralini produced a bogus study in 2013 that claimed that rats fed biotech corn developed breast cancer. (The study was later retracted.)

The plain fact is that every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of modern biotech crops has deemed them safe for human beings to eat. This includes the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many more.

Chipotle's second "key reason" for rejecting modern biotech ingredients is that "the cultivation of GMOs can damage the environment." As its sole evidence, the company cites a study estimating that pesticide and herbicide use increased by more than 400 million pounds as a result of growing biotech crops. That study was conducted by none other than the aforementioned Benbrook, and it was funded by leading anti-biotech groups, such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Consumers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Organic Center. Instead of citing activist estimates, why not cite actual data?

In May 2014, the National Agricultural Statistics Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its comprehensive report Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture. The agency found that herbicide usage peaked at 478 million pounds in 1981—a decade and half prior to the introduction of the first biotech crop varieties—and fell to 394 million pounds in 2008. So instead of the massive increase in herbicide spraying claimed by Benbrook, the USDA actually reports a modest decline. Insecticide applications peaked in 1972 at 158 million pounds, dropping to 29 million pounds in 2008.

It's worth noting that the insecticide DDT accounted for 11 percent of all agricultural pesticides used in 1972. Since biotech crops can protect themselves against insect pests, there is far less need for farmers to spray them. In November 2014, German researchers reviewed 147 agronomic studies and similarly reported that "on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent."

What really damages the environment? Growing low-yield crops, because that means more land must be plowed down instead of being left for nature. The organic farming preferred by many anti-GMO activists produces lower yields than conventional farming. A 2012 review in the journal Nature found that "overall, organic yields are 25 percent lower than conventional yields."

The USDA's latest figures show that about 408 million acres of land in 2007 were devoted to growing crops. If the Nature study is accurate, going organic would mean plowing up an extra 100 million acres of land to produce the same amount of food. That's an area bigger than California and Indiana combined.

Chipotle's third "key reason" is that the restaurant "should be a place where people can eat food made with non-GMO ingredients." Why? The company states, "In our quest to serve the best ingredients, we decided to remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle." Basically, this is a marketing ploy aimed at appealing to customers who have been bamboozled into thinking that biotech is bad. The customer is always right, even when they are wrong.

Companies are free to educate their customers or, like Chipotle, to try to take advantage of their ignorance. Many are choosing the second course. Several retailers have now introduced organic and "natural" food products to supply the market based on ignorance. Target's Simply Balanced brand, for example, debuted in 2013. Simply Balanced organic flour goes for $5.34 per five-pound bag, while the same amount of Gold Medal All Purpose unbleached flour sells for $2.49. Simply Balanced Mac & Cheese goes for $1.29 for six ounces, compared to Kraft's Deluxe Mac & Cheese for $1.12. Sixteen ounces of Simply Balanced organic spaghetti sell for $2.29, while Barilla regularly goes for $1.34 and Target's non-organic Market Pantry house brand can be had for $1.24. Simply Balanced organic marinara sauce costs $3.34 for 24 ounces; Barilla sells that much for $1.99. Simply Balanced organic peanut butter costs $5.99 per pound, whereas Jif Crunchy peanut butter goes for $2.20. Even Jif's "natural" crunchy peanut butter is just $2.49.

A similar recent price comparison between Kroger's Simple Truth organic products and the chain's conventional products finds that your best grocery-store dollar bet is on regular foods. Simple Truth organic milk cost $4.09 compared to $2.99 per gallon for regular milk; Simple Truth whole grain bread was $3.69, whereas the price for Brownberry whole grain was $3.19 per loaf.

While organic products are more expensive, they provide no extra taste or nutrition benefits. A 2009 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 162 studies comparing conventional and organic crops. The study reported that "there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced food-stuffs." Similarly, a 2012 Annals of Internal Medicine review evaluated 240 studies and found that "the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."

Chipotle hopes that marketing their decision to eschew ingredients from modern biotech crops will be good for their bottom line. But will it? Perhaps not.

Consider the case of non-GMO Cheerios. In 2014, General Mills announced with great fanfare that it was dropping biotech ingredients in its iconic Cheerios cereal. The move has apparently had no effect on sales. CEO Ken Powell told the Associated Press that the company was "not really seeing anything there that we can detect" in terms of a sales lift. He further opined that GMOs aren't really a concern for most customers.

Also in 2014, Boulder Brands, maker of Smart Balance Buttery Spread, announced that it too was going GMO-free. After eight months, CEO Steve Hughes admitted, "We have not seen a widespread lift in our sales due to the non-GMO launch."

Still, dupes of anti-biotech propaganda are evidently buying some quack non-GMO products. The Natural Society health website reported earlier this year that verified GMO-free food sales reached $8.5 billion in 2014 and that demand is growing faster than many conventional food products.

Private companies like Chipotle have the right to try to sell whatever they want. But they cannot claim that they are acting with integrity.