In Defense of Chipotle’s Action on GMOs

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By Scott Faber, Executive Director and Alex Formuzis advisor to Just Label It

More than 90 percent of all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. comes from genetically engineered seeds. Those crops serve a variety of purposes, including producing ethanol, animal feed, food additives such as high fructose corn syrup, and corn flour and soy-based cooking oil – two of the ingredients in Chipotle’s signature burritos.

The restaurant chain now boasts more than 1,780 locations, making it one of the fastest growing and most frequented restaurants in the country. Last year alone, Chipotle did more than $4.1 billion in sales. By any measure of corporate America, this company is a major player. So when it announced last week that it is moving away from using GMO ingredients, beginning with tortillas that are currently made with corn flour and soybean oil, it was and remains a huge shift – one that should be applauded by consumers and the media alike.

Here’s why.

The wide adoption of corn and soy crops altered by genetic engineering has brought with it an enormous surge in the use of the toxic herbicide glyphosate, a signature Monsanto product with more than 280 million pounds sprayed on crops in 2012 alone. It’s now the most widely used pesticide in the world, and just weeks ago it was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization. It’s pervasive in much of America’s rain, air and soil, according to tests by the U.S. Geological Survey, and turns up in both breast milk and infant formula samples.

Monsanto, Big Ag’s version of Luca Brasi, immediately attacked the WHO over its conclusion that glyphosate is a potential cancer trigger in humans, demanding that the international health agency retract its assessment.

But WHO was hardly the first to sound the alarm. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a lengthy report – the first ever on this subject by the august physicians’ group – warning pediatricians and parents alike of the unique risks that industrial pesticides and herbicides pose to children. Its report cited glyphosate as one of the crop chemicals that could pose a health risk to kids.

Underscoring the threat, just last year an analysis by EWG found that nearly 500 elementary schools across America “are within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field” likely to be sprayed with glyphosate. That should cause alarm, because “young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic herbicide,” EWG’s analysts wrote.

The explosion of glyphosate use is almost entirely the result of U.S. agriculture’s embrace of herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans and other crops. Will Chipotle’s decision to shun GMO corn produce significant drop in glyphosate use? Probably not. But it’s a start, and an honorable one at that.

If two, three or four other big users of genetically engineered corn and soybeans were to take similar action, we might very well see a fundamental change in agribusiness behavior that could start to throttle back the amount of glyphosate sprayed on crops and released into the environment. Whether or not you have concerns about eating genetically modified foods and/or having them labeled, lowering the prevalence of substances strongly associated with cancer is a goal most Americans would surely support.

Chipotle, as it freely acknowledged, will still sell soft drinks and proteins (beef, pork and chicken) produced with GMO corn, although the company is currently using grass-fed beef in some of its restaurants. That led some of the national media coverage to focus largely on the fact that the company isn’t phasing out all GMO products and ingredients. That’s true, but Chipotle’s statement was clear about which products would change and which would not.

With GMO crops dominating American agriculture and incorporated into most processed foods, livestock and soda, a company with almost 1,800 stores in nearly every state can’t find new sourcing for its entire menu at the drop of a hat. However, unlike other mainstay chain eateries, this company is making a concerted effort to deliver products that aren’t contributing to the pesticide treadmill.

It’s easy to play armchair quarterback. I do it all the time. But it remains indisputable that Chipotle has made a decision no other U.S. restaurant chain with a footprint this big has made, one that could set us on a path toward significant reductions in the use of the toxic crop chemicals that pervade our food, water, air and bodies.




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