Politics & Policy

GMO: Gimmicky Marketing Obfuscations

Perhaps Chipotle should have learned from Starbucks.

From grocery stores to Mexican restaurants to coffee shops, do-gooder retailers are serving up a side of liberal politics with every purchase. Earlier this year, Starbucks had to ditch its “Race Together” promotion after backlash from customers who wanted to leave black and white to coffee and cream. Now Chipotle is the latest overpriced chain forced to backpedal: on its claim to “remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle.”

Teenage boys of America, rejoice! Your 2,000-calorie barbacoa burrito is GMO-free (sorta, kinda).

The company’s announcement came with great fanfare this week. Its website boasted about the company’s moral superiority while posting one anti-GMO propaganda line after another.  One of its most egregious statements is “We don’t believe the scientific community has reached a consensus on the long-term implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption.” It has: A recent poll of scientists showed that nearly 90 percent of respondents believe that GMOs are perfectly safe, and numerous studies on the subject conclude the same. But why believe scientists? No doubt the Chipotle PR department knows better.

Aside from the GMO politics, the bottom line is that Chipotle’s advertising is purposefully misleading. The company admits as much with this disclaimer: “But it is important to note that most animal feed in the U.S. is genetically modified, which means that the meat and dairy served at Chipotle are likely to come from animals given at least some GMO feed.”

Oh, and this: “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.”

So you can eat GM-free at Chipotle as long as you don’t order the pork, chicken, cheese, sour cream, tortillas, or Coke. “They conveniently ignore GMO-derived ingredients when they don’t have alternatives or it doesn’t serve profits,” said Kevin Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. “It is corporate deception in the name of a buck and anti-GMO deception in the name of ideology.” So much for food with integrity.

Now just imagine for a moment if McDonald’s tried such a maneuver. The food police would be out in full force, demonstrating and demanding a retraction, apology, fine, wage increases, etc. But since Chipotle is one of the cool kids on the block, fully embraced by the culinary elite and their pals in the organic industry (and, of course, by Hillary Clinton), those folks are oddly silent.

Yet Chipotle’s PR stunt will likely yield unintended consequences. It might be the break much-maligned GMO supporters need. Consumers seem to know very little about this biotechnology, and what they do know, or hear, is mostly negative. This may finally open up an information flow that to date has been stymied and largely controlled by GMO foes.

Organic products can’t contain genetically modified ingredients, so the demonization of the process is a boon to their organic business.

The loudest voices against GMOs are organic-industry executives, folks like Stonyfield chairman Gary Hirshberg. The reason why is the bottom line: Organic products can’t contain genetically modified ingredients, so the demonization of the process is a boon to their organic business.

Hirshberg is the key funder of many anti-GMO groups, including Just Label It, Only Organic, and Food Policy Action. He shared the stage with Chipotle’s chief marketing officer a few years ago at Columbia Business School to talk about slow food (?) and big business. Chipotle’s anti-GMO rhetoric could be lifted right from the website of any one of Hirshberg’s front organizations.

Much like Chipotle, the organic industry relies on a number of specious claims, like the notion that organic food is healthier (it’s not), pesticide-free (it’s not), and more eco-friendly (it’s not). Their marketing has fueled a double-digit rise in the sale of organic goods over the past few years. They are a sanctimonious crowd, lambasting conventional farmers as polluters, poisoners, and profiteers. Unfortunately, their pressure tactics are working, as more retailers and food producers cave to their fear campaign.

The anti-science view of the foodies is confounding, since GMOs have huge potential to conserve resources, boost nutritional value, and reduce food waste — all supposed aims of their agenda.

Genetic engineering saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from a virus that was killing off the staple crop, forcing the use of more pesticides and threatening the livelihood of papaya farmers. The USDA just approved the Arctic Apple, which switches off a few genes that cause bruising and browning, making it more appealing and practical to finicky eaters who don’t eat enough produce. The Simplot potato would possess the same traits and reduces the creation of acrylamide, which is produced when the potato is fried. And politics is the only thing holding up approval of Atlantic salmon, which will grow faster, increase supply, and reduce prices of this healthy protein.

But the opposition to GM crops goes further than whether your tortilla chip is fried in sunflower or soybean oil. It has real global consequences; the economic and agricultural benefit to poor countries around the world is revolutionary. In its 2015 annual letter, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation identified biotechnology as one “breakthrough” in global progress. The foundation declares that “innovation in agriculture is so important” to realizing the goal of Africa’s “being able to feed itself” by 2030 by boosting crop yields 50 percent.

Gates said that “GMO-derived seeds will provide better productivity, better drought tolerance, salinity tolerance and, if the safety is proven, African countries will be among the biggest beneficiaries. . . . Most of Africa will see this [GMOs] as a way to improve their productivity.”

Meanwhile, back in the States, well-fed and well-to-do food executives dish out fear and confusion while engaging in the same marketing tactics they criticize in Big Food–Big Ag companies. Let’s hope that recipe for success runs out soon.

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