Chipotle menu now GMO-free. Is GM food opposition growing?

On Monday, Chipotle became the first major restaurant chain to serve only GMO-free food. What does that mean for the debate around genetically altered food?

Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo/File
This Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 file photo shows the door of a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Robinson Township, Pa. Chipotle on Monday, April 27, 2015 said it has completed phasing out genetically modified ingredients from its food, making it the first national fast-food chain to do so.

Chipotle is taking the debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the next level.

Starting Monday, the burrito and taco chain will be serving only food that is GMO-free, making it the first major restaurant chain to do so, The New York Times reported. The decision reflects a broader trend toward greater support for GMO opponents – even as GM food advocates point to the growing body of science supporting the safety and benefits of genetically altered crops and ingredients.

“Chipotle is on a never-ending journey to source the highest quality ingredients we can find,” according to the restaurant’s website. “Over the years, as we have learned more about GMOs, we’ve decided that using them in our food doesn’t align with that vision.”

The site goes on to present the main points of anti-GMO arguments: That scientists have yet to determine the long-term effects of GMOs on health, and that genetically altering crops has a negative effect on the environment. Critics have also argued that GMO ingredients can introduce allergens and reduce the nutritional quality in foods in which they are used.

Yet institutions such as the American Medical Association, the National Academies, the World Health Organization, and the US Food and Drug Association have all said there is no evidence that eating genetically modified food poses a health risk.

“Although it’s impossible to prove anything absolutely safe, and all of those groups warn that vigilance on GMOs and health is vital, they all agree that there’s no evidence that it’s dangerous to eat genetically modified foods,” The Washington Post food and health reporter Tamar Haspel wrote.

The FDA, which conducts extensive testing on GMOs in the market, also added that there is no evidence that genetically altered crops are less nutritious or more likely to cause an allergic reaction than their unmodified counterparts. At the same time, advocates tout GMO benefits: Increased crop productivity for farmers, food security for growing populations worldwide, and the profits gained in the long term from money saved on pesticides.

Despite that, public opinion has remained largely anti-GMO. Just under 40 percent of American adults say they think GM foods are safe, versus almost 90 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Many in the food industry have responded accordingly to the anti-GMO trend: Chipotle’s announcement to go GMO-free follows similar decisions by companies such as Whole Foods, which has pledged to clear its shelves of GM ingredients by 2018; Walmart, which has been expanding its selection of organic foods; and General Mills, which last year stopped the use of GM sugar and cornstarch in the breakfast cereal Cheerios. 

With everyone taking sides, the discussion around GMOs has at times devolved into less-than-constructive arguments that, as Ms. Haspel put it, more closely resembles a melee – “a meme-driven, name-calling free-for-all.”

Yet there is a way forward, one that takes seriously concerns about GMO safety while accepting that genetically altering food has real benefits that can’t be ignored.

“Many moderate voices call for continuing the distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops,” according to the Scientific American, which published a lengthy, detailed article about the debate. “They advocate keeping a close eye on the health and environmental impact of existing ones.”

The result may be slower advances in GM technology, according to the article, but “additional testing may be the compromise that enables the human race to benefit from those crops' significant advantages.”

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