I’m not much fun to go out with anymore (that presumes I ever was fun in the first place). Any sign, slogan, bumper sticker, protest, comment, etc. elicits a reaction from me – mostly simply with me asking the question, “How do you know?” That’s not a way to make friends or keep wives happy. Mrs. Wintercow happens to love Chipotle and on occasion she is so hungry that she drags me with her.
I had vaguely followed their campaign to stop using GMOs but had not paid much attention to it, as with most things in my life these days. But when I walked into the store the other night, their supremely proud signage congratulating themselves on just how ethical and awesome and just they were got a bit under my skin. Now, this post is not a lesson on GMOs (which by the way is probably a misleading term, almost all plants have been genetically modified in some way or another, what you should be thinking of when you hear popularizations of anti-GMOs is direct gene transfer, or a transgenic process, and even that is misleading because as any competent biologist can tell you that this process happens “naturally” as well, but be that as it may …) but merely an observation about Chipotle.
If you were to go to the counter or send an e-mail to the company asking them, “How do you know that stopping your purchase of GMOs is “good”?” you are not likely to get an answer. First reason is that I am sure whatever research is done on it is not widely known and second is that the term good is like a moving goalpost. Does it save species? Does it make people healthier? And so on. Of course, it is “good” in the sense that if this is what their customers want, then it is a prudent business move on their part to deliver it to them. What I particularly like about this reaction by Chipotle is that it illustrates the point that is simply dismissed by many as ideological capitalistic garbage – that firms have very little market power over both their workers and customers, and that the sole purpose of production is in fact consumption – and that the whims and desires or consumers are what drive entrepreneurial processes.
But my point today is much simpler. Given that I was “forced” to eat my non-GMO burrito the other day and not make a scene in a crowded restaurant by asking about the science, has anyone actually stopped to ask what Chipotle has accomplished by ending its use of GMOs? Well, I’ve been asking questions and I’ve come to learn that the biggest change they made was eliminating their reliance on GMO soybeans. The soybeans (used for oil mostly) that were being used were genetically modified to be herbicide resistant (you may have heard of “Roundup Ready” soybeans) – this allows farmers to plant the crop and spray for particular weeds without damaging the crop. Now, without lecturing you on what we know about Roundup Ready soybeans, we can simply ask the question, “What has Chipotle replaced that with?” And the answer seems to be that instead of soybeans Chipotle not sources their oils from “non-GMO” sunflowers. What is first of interest about sunflowers is that unless I am mistaken they are not a legume and are not therefore nitrogen fixers. On first glance it would seem to mean that by relying on sunflowers for oil instead of soybeans that we are increasing the demands for fertilizer use. And not only does this fertilizer production and use contribute to global warming and the death of fresh and salt water resources, the processes used to generate the fertilizer may in fact have some less than environmentally friendly origins when it comes to species protection and biodiversity.
But ignore that. What else do we know about the sunflowers that Chipotle seems to be relying on? It turns out that they are relying on conventionally bred sunflowers but once that have been modified (through selection and other processes) to be herbicide tolerant as well. It turns out that the herbicides that are used on these “conventional” sunflowers have many more weeds that are resistant to this herbicide than the Roundup that would have been used on the soybeans – which means more herbicide being used at different times and magnifying the future problem of herbicide resistance in the targeted weeds. So can we at least ask the question of whether anything (aside from marketing sheen) was accomplished by Chiptole’s “bold” move to stop using GMOs? Are herbicide tolerant crops not being used? Is crop diversity increasing? And has Chipotle spoken with farmers, the USDA and other conservation experts on soil erosion, fertilizer use, the impact on pollinators, etc? And so on.
But we cannot ask such questions, they are not polite. Maybe Mrs. Wintercow is correct that I simply need to be GMO-ver it.