In 2013, Chipotle started a revolution. The chain began labeling ingredients made with or composed of genetically modified organisms (GMO) on its menu, a move towards transparency that the company saw as necessary in a fast food world of increasingly questionable hush-hush food production practices. But merely labeling GMO ingredients proved not enough for the chain, known for bringing to light problems it sees with the US food system, mainly through charmingly animated shorts. Chipotle wanted to go a step further, so on April 27, the company announced that it would be the “first [national fast food chain] to cook only with non-GMO ingredients” (though that doesn’t include dairy items or meat… or the GMO corn–produced soda). Comments to this announcement garnered over 27,000 “likes” on Facebook in a matter of 21 hours, immediately flooding the company’s page. Folks posed questions about Chipotle’s decision as well as about GMOs in general. The Food and Drug Administration currently classifies GMOs as safe, but consumer preferences are still divided.
The post about the chain’s move away from GMOs shows some of the lingering questions, and confusion, surrounding this hot-button agricultural, marketing, and food system issue. Commenters have posted replies like, “wait isn’t everything gmo? Form [sic] plants to animals, so technically chipotle is closing down!” and, “Until you ensure that the chicken and beef you use were fed GMO free feed, you can’t really claim that.” (NB—To the first commenter: the answer is no, not “everything” is genetically modified. And to the second commenter: you’ve got a point.) These and other comments perfectly portray the differing views that consumers have over the widespread use of genetically modified foods among big-wig food industry producers and players. Some applaud Chipotle’s decision while others deride it, convinced the decision is an “ingenious marketing ploy” or an excuse for the company to raise its prices (though Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells assures against that), or just plain “terrible news.”
But how can a decision like this—one that so greatly places the malleable future of our food system into the hands of people who can change it—have such divided critics? The answer lies mostly in a lack of knowledge about what GMOs are—and aren’t—and what the true role of genetic modification plays with regard to our health, our farms, and our present and future food system.
Imagine trying to grow a garden, only to realize that it’s being overtaken and undernourished by weeds that are popping up between your beautiful would-be harvest. Spraying weed-killer might also kill your crop, but how do you contain the weeds without doing damage to the plants you’re tending? Or imagine big, leafy tomato plants, half of which are wiped out by blight, a disease common to the plant, leaving you with half of what you thought you’d produce. It’d be great, you think, if there existed a tomato that resisted disease, a heartier tomato, perhaps one that grew with pesticide right in it. Or, imagine being able to pick tomatoes off the vine but not worry about them ripening (and subsequently spoiling) too quickly. Wouldn’t it great to grow tomatoes that delay their ripening or even continue growing during a drought? Or what about creating a food item—say, a strain of rice—that has vitamins in it? Rice that, when eaten, could help wipe out new incidences of blindness and other eye diseases in developing countries? These pipe-dreams were at one time, presumably, just those among farmers who bemoaned problems with their crops. Too much disease, too many weeds, too much spoilage, so much wasted potential.
But then, scientists, geneticists, and biologists began tinkering with the genes of certain plants and crops. And not like good old Mendel with his Mendelian square and his bicolored peas. This tinkering happened in labs, using the wonders of modern science to implant genes into certain plants that otherwise would not typically exist in those plants—genes that made these plants herbicide tolerant, disease resistant, and even able to produce pesticides within themselves to ward off insects. These became the benefits that GMOs have offered to farmers and food producers since the first genetically modified food crop, the Flavr-Savr tomato, was grown in the 1994. Suddenly there was a case for engineering food.
While Europe mostly restricts the growth, sale, and use of genetically modified crops in their food system, there are eight crops with genetically modified versions widely available in the United States. The two that show up in our food system the most, and were widely spread throughout Chipotle’s old food menu, are corn and soybeans. The nifty chart below, thanks to Chipotle’s website, lists these and the other six crops along with their genetically-induced properties.
It’s hard to deny the utility of this technology. Farmers, producers, and other GM advocates cite increased crop yield and decreased use of herbicides and pesticides on farms due to it. But it’s also hard to deny the sheer unknowns that this technology harbors. Unknowns about health effects, crop biodiversity problems, the potential for the creation of herbicide- and pesticide-resistant superweeds and superbugs, and the slippery legal issues between big seed giant, Monsanto, and the farmers using patented GM seed.
But how do GMOs fit into the (not new) organic food movement? Can a genetically modified food item also be considered organic? Can an organic food also be genetically modified? Are those questions the same thing? And how does this affect the dairy industry, including cheese and milk production? Organic milk sits on grocery refrigerator shelves, but is there such a thing as organic cheese? There are lots of (thankfully answerable) questions.
First, let’s nail down the definition of a Genetically Modified Organism, or GMO. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Glossary of Agricultural Biotechnology Terms’s rather sparse definition, a genetically modified organism is “an organism produced through genetic modification.” Well, obviously. More completely, a GMO is an organism (like a plant, for instance) whose genome has been altered via genetic engineering to include one or more genes that aren’t typically be found in that organism, such as disease resistance or herbicide- and pesticide-resistance. Genetically-modified food crops, including corn and soybeans, are genetically modified to better fight off certain diseases that could wipe out a whole crop or to improve their resistance to herbicides or drought. While it may sound similar, genetic modification of plants is not the same as centuries-old techniques of cross-pollination, breeding, and hybridization of plants. Creating hybrids (like, for instance, grapes that taste like cotton candy) is done by pure cross-pollination and happens due to a natural cross between two organisms with different genotypes. Really, we are all hybrids (well, most of us). We’re the cross between our parents—two people with two different genetic makeups.
While home gardeners and organic farmers use natural plant breeding to select for beauty, color, hardiness, taste, or other favorable characteristics of plants, genetic modification allows scientists to insert genes into some plant crops that promote other beneficial qualities like drought tolerance or herbicide resistance.
Organic products, including fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and dairy products, are all inherently not genetically modified. But while all organic products are GMO-free, all GMO-free products are not necessarily organic. For instance, you can purchase GMO-free popcorn, but that popcorn is not necessarily organic popcorn. You can rest assured, however, that organic popcorn is also non-GMO. This is because the USDA’s National Organic Program prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms in organically-produced products. This means that in order for fruits, vegetables, dairy, or meat to be labeled with the “USDA organic” seal, certain farm management practices have to be in place as well as not using genetically-modified organisms in field or feed.
Other specific rules that farmers must follow in order for their produce, livestock, or other products to be labeled “organic” are listed in this excerpt from the USDA blog:
“The USDA organic label on dairy or meat products means that the animals from which it originated were raised in living conditions that accommodated their natural behaviors, without being administered hormones or antibiotics, and while grazing on pasture grown on healthy soil. Then during processing the meat or dairy product was handled in a facility that was inspected by an organic certifier and processed without any artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors before being packaged to avoid contact with any prohibited, nonorganic substances.
So, really, when you see the label “organic” on a gallon of milk, that label refers to the farm management practices of the dairy farmers and processors who got that milk to you from udder to refrigerator case, rather than the milk itself. These practices are “a very important part of the process-based regulatory framework” of the integrity of the organic label, according to the USDA.
For that organic label to appear on your milk, Bessie the organic cow must not have eaten genetically modified alfalfa, corn, soybeans, or any feed made with genetically modified ingredients. Not only that, but the organic label requires that farmers raise their livestock “in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior” meaning that Bessie has year-round access to the outdoors, she is not treated with antibiotics or hormones (including the milk-boosting hormone rbST), and she is allowed to graze for a minimum of 120 days on pastures of healthy soil. The USDA even sends inspectors out to farms to make sure that farmers are following these rules strictly. Indeed, it costs farmers a pretty penny to display the USDA organic seal.
Cheesemakers interested in making and selling organic cheeses must source their milk from organic producers. If they’re making cheese from the milk of their own herd or flock, they must make sure to follow all of the defined rules in order to be able to market their cheese as “organic.” Labeling cheese as “organic” implies that no genetically modified organisms were used to produce that cheese during any stage of production.
So what does this mean for you? There are many convincing perspectives both for and against the use and consumption of genetically modified food. If, for whatever the reasons that you deem important, you’d like to eliminate genetically modified foods from your diet, you can do a few things, the first of which is to transition to eating organic foods, and really one of almost exclusively fruits, vegetables, and organically raised meat. Otherwise, look for “non-GMO” on packaged food labels (A caveat, however: this label is a voluntary, not mandatory, one.) But be forewarned: When eighty percent of our food supply in the United States is made up of genetically modified ingredients, finding non-GMO foodstuffs proves to be a bit of a challenge. It is for this reason that Chipotle has not yet been able to really, truly, completely cook with non-GMO ingredients. Their cows and pigs and chickens still eat in and on genetically modified feed and fields. So while the “grass-fed” and “humanely-raised” labels on Chipotle’s meat means that Bessie, at least, got to munch greens in acres of sun-lit fields, it does not mean that those greens were definitely not genetically modified soybeans. At least not yet. CEO Steve Ells has big plans for the company, currently scouting out sources for non-GMO-fed meat.
The topic of genetically modified organisms is a big one. One that cannot be distilled down to a mere post on a website, a blog, or a Facebook rant (and believe me, there are lots—my blood boiled just reading some of those on Chipotle’s page). It necessitates conversation, science-backed evidence, ongoing openness, and an honest look at the changes it is making to our food system, both positive and negative. Genetically engineering vitamin A-infused rice that could wipe out disease among millions means hope for generations of suffering people. Yet engineering bigger, better, pesticide-resistant corn varieties for use in chips, cookies, sodas, and other processed foods means that we may wipe out smaller, not-as-robust heirloom varieties, around for centuries but now diminished to a mere miniscule amount.
While Chipotle’s latest no-GMO mantra may not be the pat on the head the company seems to have been searching for, it still pushes open the door of the GMO debate a bit wider and for that, we applaud you, Chipotle.
Author’s note: Thanks to Megan Lehnerd, MS, and Amy Elvidge, MS for help on this story.
Photo credit of featured image courtesy of Chipotle.com