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Why We Can't Take Chipotle's GMO Announcement All That Seriously

Chipotle restaurant workers in Miami fill orders on April 27, the day the company said it would  use only non-GMO ingredients in its food.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Chipotle restaurant workers in Miami fill orders on April 27, the day the company said it would use only non-GMO ingredients in its food.

Chipotle is trumpeting its renunciation of ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The company says that using GMOs — mainly corn in its tortillas and soybean oil for cooking — "doesn't align" with its vision of "food with integrity." According to Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, it represents "our commitment to serving our customers the very best ingredients we can find."

Here at The Salt, though, we've been hearing from people who think Chipotle's stance shows little integrity at all. Rather, it shows a double helping of marketing hype, they say. Greg Jaffe, the expert on GMOs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, calls it "hypocritical" and based on "smoke and mirrors." The Washington Post, meanwhile, accused the company of joining a "global propaganda campaign."

Why? Here are five reasons.

1. Soda

Way, way down at the bottom of the page that announces Chipotle's new policy, far below the headline that says "Food With Integrity; G-M-Over It," you'll find this sentence: "Many of the beverages sold in our restaurants contain genetically modified ingredients, including those containing corn syrup, which is almost always made from GMO corn."

Well. It appears that Chipotle is making a massive exception to its GMO-free policy when it comes to selling sugary drinks.

2. The "superweed" double standard

A sunflower greenhouse in Fargo, N.D., where <a href="http://www.ars.usda.gov/pandp/people/people.htm?personid=41691">Brent Hulke</a> is breeding plants that produce oil that's dramatically lower in saturated fat.
Dan Charles / NPR
A sunflower greenhouse in Fargo, N.D., where Brent Hulke is breeding plants that produce oil that's dramatically lower in saturated fat.

As an example of the ways that GMOs can damage the environment, Chipotle points to the problems caused by herbicide-tolerant GMO crops and how they encourage farmers to use a single herbicide, usually glyphosate, or Roundup. This, in turn, has led to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, which Chipotle calls "superweeds."

Chipotle's answer to this, per its new non-GMO policy, is to switch from soybean oil to sunflower oil.

The problem is, many sunflower varieties, while not genetically modified, also are herbicide-tolerant. They were bred to tolerate a class of herbicides called ALS inhibitors. And since farmers starting relying on those herbicides, many weeds have evolved resistance to them. In fact, many more weeds have become resistant to ALS inhibitors than to glyphosate.

Why should Chipotle bemoan the emergence of weeds that are resistant to glyphosate, yet not to other weedkillers?

3. Salt

The top reason to back away from GMOs, according to Chipotle's website, is uncertainty about the long-term safety of growing and consuming this food. Yet the company apparently has no problem with salt, a substance that poses risks that are far more clearly documented, Jaffe points out. A recent survey by the New York Times showed that the typical meal consumed at Chipotle contains close to a full day's recommended allowance of sodium, along with 1,070 calories.

For CSPI's Jaffe, the company's highly publicized move away from GMOs serves merely to distract consumers from "the real problem with Chipotle food, which is that it's just not healthy."

4. Science

Chipotle can't quite make up its mind what to say about the safety of GMOs. In an email, Chipotle spokesman Arnold told The Salt that "we didn't say we were doing this because we think GMO foods are not healthy." Yet the company's website casts doubt: "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. More independent studies are needed," it says.

The fact is, scientific studies have shown ill effects from eating lots of things on the Chipotle menu, if you eat them to excess. At the top of the list, of course, are sugar in those sodas, the refined carbohydrates in the white rice and flour tortillas, and salt. There's no such evidence about GMOs.

5. Meat

Chipotle says it wasn't too difficult or expensive to remove GMO ingredients from its burritos. It simply had to find new suppliers for corn flour and cooking oil.

It would be much harder, and presumably more expensive, to use only meat from pigs or chickens that consumed a non-GMO diet. That's because the amount of corn or soybeans required to feed Chipotle's animals is vastly larger than what's needed for its tortillas or cooking oil. Finding a new supply of animal feed would raise costs, so Chipotle isn't doing it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.