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The GMO Controversy Misses the Point

4 minute read

Several food companies have recently reformed their menus: McDonald’s will stop using chicken treated with human antibiotics, Chipotle is going GMO-free, Panera is eliminating a long list of ingredients, Pepsi is abandoning the use of aspartame, and Kraft is removing the colors from its mac and cheese.

All this is certainly good for business: These companies are responding to their customers, and showing they care. But is it good for us? That is, will it improve public and environmental health? Some will, some won’t, and it’s crucial to differentiate.

Getting farm animals off medically important antibiotics is a good idea. Every time we deploy antibiotics, germs evolve, and resistance spreads. We’re rapidly running out of ways to kill these antibiotic-resistant bugs. The germs that make people sick are different from the germs that make farm animals sick, but bacteria can trade the genetic code for antibiotic-resistance across species. Now companies such as McDonald’s, Perdue, and Tyson are taking significant steps to reduce antibiotic use.

When you try to weigh the effects of the rest of these menu changes, things get pretty muddy pretty fast. The food coloring that makes macaroni and cheese that neon orange is potentially connected to various health issues. But there are more studies suggesting they are safe than those suggesting these colors have any risk.

The evidence on aspartame is similar: There are studies that suggest a troubling connection to cancer, and then there are others that show no association with cancer. Pepsi is replacing aspartame with another artificial sweetener, sucralose, which simply hasn’t been studied as much.

Panera is basically removing every ingredient with a science-y sounding name. Some of these are potentially bad (again, things like food-coloring), but others are almost certainly benign. For instance, Panera is cutting caffeine (what were they adding caffeine to anyway?), and vanillin—the chemical that grows in vanilla beans and gives them their distinctive scent.

Chipotle’s GMO ban is also fairly superficial. Most of the sane debate (and believe me, there’s plenty of insane debate) on GMOs is not about health hazards, but about the high-tech farming practices associated with genetically engineered seed. Chipotle is ditching GMO seed, but keeping the industrial farming. Chipotle’s corn will be sprayed with less of the herbicide glyphosate, but more of the herbicide atrazine. Instead of repelling pests with corn genetically engineered to resist insects, Chipotle’s farmers will be more likely to use other insecticides. Instead of getting oil from soybeans genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed with herbicides, Chipotle is getting oil from sunflowers conventionally bred to tolerate being sprayed with herbicides.

In the public debate, the term GMO is a symbol that stands in for heavy pesticide use and environmentally dubious farming practices. Chipotle is just changing the symbol, not the things it symbolizes.

Instead of improving transparency, public-relations moves generally make the food system more opaque. Chipotle’s PR move is a bad deal for the public if it makes an idealistic young person think that by eating GMO-free burritos, they are fixing agriculture. Panera’s PR move is truly insidious if it convinces a single overweight dad that his high-calorie panini lunch is healthy.

Food makers have a long history of using insubstantial health claims to sell food. Wonder Bread was the progenitor (“Builds strong bodies”), and that’s led to gluten-free Cocoa Pebbles, and POM promising its sugar water will help you “cheat death.” The trick is to provide eaters with an icon that seems to indicate health and quality, while actually doing almost nothing.

We tend to worry about the wrong things—Ebola, airplane crashes, and chemicals in food—while ignoring real dangers—car crashes, obesity, and climate change. Food companies capitalize on our risk blindness. It’s cheaper to make a superficial shift. As a Chipotle executive noted, the cost of eliminating GMOs was “de minimis.” Real change, like eliminating antibiotics, affects the bottom line. If consumers can’t differentiate between real and token changes, which do you think companies will choose?

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