Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Chipotle and the Logic of an Anti-GMO position

            About two weeks ago, Chipotle – a fast-food burrito chain which appeals strongly to millenials and others as a quick food shop without the tacky cheapness of a fastfood restaurant – announced that it would make all its offerings free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This announcement was followed by skeptical editorials in various newspapers including the two that I regularly peruse, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. While this move by Chipotle is certainly more about branding and continuing to bolster the chain’s identity as something more than just fast-food than it is about customer’s health, I found it interesting that the newspaper editorials were not more sensitive to the reasons why this move might appeal to a great many people.
The Wall Street Journal in particular essentially called Chipotle’s decision a piece of self-righteous stupidity. The paper’s editors argued that those who disdain GMO products when genetic intervention can feed more people at lower costs are little more than whining prima donnas. They also pointed out that after two decades of GMO production there are no definitive examples of harm to human health. As such, the editorial concluded, the anti-GMO crowd (in the WSJ context this means squishy, tree-hugging Liberals) celebrating Chipotle’s decision is just taking part in another round of “moral posturing.”
Well, the editors at the Wall Street Journal are, of course, free to have their opinion. However, in their blunt dismissal of anti-GMO concerns, they are failing to see how this one particular issue is indicative of a much larger nervousness about what is being done to our food by the industrialized food system. As a father of two and someone who pays close attention to the ingredients in our food, I am uneasy about the proliferation of GMOs into our food supply because this brings with it a tremendous number of unknowns in exchange for what feels like a rather dubious benefit. The unknowns fall into three general categories.

The first is a question of health. For a very long time food producers received the benefit of the doubt when it came to putting extra stuff into our food. They added various preservatives to make things last longer on our shelves. They added extra sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup to jazz up the taste of sodas, juices, teas, even applesauce, peanut butter, and bread (and enable them to use cheaper ingredients in the process). They developed a method of infusing fats with gas – i.e. partially hydrogenated oils - to enable the creation of shelf-stable, powdered dishes that only required hot water to cook. None of these on their own were directly linked to immediate health problems during their first couple of decades of use.
However, thanks to these various additives and alterations to the food we consume – especially in the cheapest/most affordable foods – the United States and many other countries that consume industrialized food are now facing epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. Human bodies are bloating and breaking down from a constant infusion of things they were never intended to consume.
And it’s not just that people are eating the wrong stuff. It’s that the food we have come to eat over the last couple of decades has been manipulated in so many ways that our bodies have a difficult time figuring out what they need to keep us healthy. A couple of weeks ago there was an essay in The Wall Street Journal about the loss of flavor in food and in that essay there was a description of an experiment undertaken in the 1939 in which toddlers were given free rein to select their own foods over an extended period of time. It turned out that what tasted good to those toddlers at various points in time reflected what their bodies needed at that stage in their development. Some days it was blueberries. Other days it was spinach. Other days they just wanted meat. Taste mattered not just as a source of joy but as an indicator of nutrients and bodily needs. Today however, with strawberry flavored popsicles and cheese-flavored chips that connection between flavor and bodily needs is much more difficult to maintain. Our bodies still know what they need. However, when something tastes like applesauce but also contains a substantial serving of corn, the body’s various feedback mechanisms get confused. When potatoes taste like cheese how’s a body to know when it’s gotten what it needs?
In light of these experiences, is it unreasonable to worry that genetically modifying more of our food will only make things worse?

The second reason I’m skeptical about GMOs is that the argument put forth by companies for their use reflects a simplistic supply and demand logic that ignores the reality of how moves around the world. The Wall Street Journal editorial touts the ability of genetically modifying foods to increase crop yields, consequently lowering prices for food in the poorest areas of the world. This bothers me for two reasons. First, businesses in general are not altruistic endeavors. Whenever one of their voices – and the Wall Street Journal is certainly a business voice – starts to make appeals to alleviating poverty red-flags go up all over my brain. The business interest in GMOs has nothing to do with making food cheaper for consumers. Sure, genetic modification can increase crop yields but more importantly for the companies that engage in this modification is the possibility of patenting the GMO and gaining greater financial control over the seeds and subsidiary products like pesticides and fertilizers. In this light corn – the plant – no longer exists. Instead there is ‘Roundup Ready Corn’, owned by Monsanto and one cannot plant the seeds that come from a previous crop without paying Monsanto for usage rights.
Second, there is more than enough food currently grown to feed “the worlds growing population.” The causes of hunger and/or steep food prices are more often than not political and structural not agricultural. Government programs in the United States will at times pay farmers not to plant certain crops in order to keep prices stable. The infamous famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s was caused by a local drought and a political war that prevented outside food from getting to people who needed it. The increased crop yields provided by GMOs are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Whenever people bring up a Malthusian kind of food shortage apocalypse, they are simply engaging in scare tactics.

Finally, the last reason I’m skeptical about the whole value of GMO production is that I can’t see what I as a consumer will get out of it. Every alteration we make in our food requires some kind of trade-off. There’s no magic button that allows for us to keep everything we want and get rid of all the things we don’t. While we figured out how to make produce that is bigger and stays fresh longer we also now have red delicious apples that taste like tennis balls and gigantic strawberries with barely any flavor at all. The ‘fresh’ lettuce I get in a clamshell at the store is bland and rubbery when compared with the greens I get from my local community garden. Increasing crop yields are all well and good, but that seems like a benefit for the companies and not for me. If I’m paying a few dollars less per week for food that contains fewer nutrients or just doesn’t taste that good, I’m not better off. Cheaper is not necessarily better and nobody has given me any other reason to think that a genetically modified ingredient improves my life. Until that changes, I will continue to be highly skeptical of the value of GMOs. 

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