Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chipotle says "no" to GMOs. Monsanto isn't thrilled.

Chipotle recently announced, to mixed reviews, that it plans to phase out all genetically modified organisms from its ingredients list in 2014. Among those who are unimpressed with this decision is, not surpisingly, Dr. Robert T. Fraley, agriculture Goliath Monsanto's Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Fraley wrote a well crafted article voicing his displeasure, and I just had to break it down into what makes sense, what sounds hollow, and what raises even more questions.

Fraley's first talking point was to rebut Chipotle's fear about the safety of GMOs. He started out strong by pointing out that the only study showing a significant danger posed by GMO ingestion was so flawed in its methodology that the journal in which it was published eventually retracted it, and went on to cite scientific opinions that GMOs pose no threat.

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 0

I found his next contention harder to swallow. Monsanto seems to still be trying to convince the public that farmers have the option to grow their seeds or not. Anyone who's ever found a stray clover in a field of grass knows that seeds don't always play by the rules you want them to. Monsanto's seeds contaminate fields. Then Monsanto sues the farmer for theft. How are they still denying that this is a thing that happens?

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 1

Fraley then gave us some dirt on soil quality, citing a National Academy of Sciences study that suggests that both herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant crops can actually improve soil quality by reducing the need to till, which can lead to soil erosion or even depletion of nutrients.

While this might seem like a point for Fraley and Monsanto, let's remember that these are industrial solutions to industrial problems. Farming is a complicated web of species interactions. There aren't discrete problems that require custom-made fixes. You can't do anything in an ecosystem without effecting several species. Herbicide-resistant cornstalks and soybeans encourage the heavy use of herbicides, which in turn destroys pesky weeds, but also plants we might not want to be in such a hurry to get rid of. The herbicide-induced decline of milkweed plants is having a devastating effect on the monarch butterfly population for a start.

So is there a way to get rid of weeds that doesn't use herbicides or tilling? I don't know. Have we looked into mulching? Does that work on an industrial scale?

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 2

Next Dr. Fraley dealt with the issue of whether GMOs should be labelled, treating us to a brusque and unconvincing reiteration of the standard line that products that don't contain GMOs are free to label themselves as such, but we shouldn't force companies to go to the expense of redesigning their packaging. This is a flimsy argument. Labels and designs are always being switched up for a variety of reasons. The real reason that opponents of mandatory GMO labeling are so vocal is that they think it will make sales plummet. It might. And it might be in part because people like to panic over nothing, and they'll run in fear of GMOs when there's nothing actually wrong with them.

I see this as nothing more than a challenge to the advertising industry. They convince us to want and need horrible things all the time. If GMOs are really as safe as Monsanto claims they are, this should be easy. Don Draper would have had it solved before his mid-morning nap

Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 3

And then Fraley gets right down to a topic that's, strangely, not brought up very much in the debate, and that's the idea of genetic engineering itself. Whether the process in general- not its potential indirect consequences- is something we should be delving into. And this issue tends to take on dystopian proportions sometimes. Visions of Frankenstein and the Terminator tend to be on the periphery of any debate about GMOs, whether we like to admit it or not. Fraley makes the case that

"All our food has been improved through painstaking selection and plant breeding. Genetic modification through biotechnology is simply a more precise technique for making those improvements."

Charles Darwin used the same example 150 years ago to help people swallow his new, confusing, and downright heretical ideas, and now we thank him for it...so...I don't know. On an intellectual level, I want to be open to the idea of GMOs. I just don't have faith that the research is being done carefully enough. If we did find out that there's something inherently horrible about genetic engineering that we didn't realize before, would it already be too late to stop it? Is that a legitimate question or have I seen too many disaster movies?

We'll call this round a draw for now. Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 3

For the final round, Fraley delivers the popular line that we have to explore every possible avenue if we're going to be able to feed a growing population. Now this is certainly true, and again, the issue he's discussing is the concept of genetic engineering, not the actual way that it's been put into practice.

Should we be researching ways to grow crops more efficiently and with less land? Yes, of course. But the whole system to which Monsanto's GMO crops are inextricably linked is not the best way to do this, and that's where there's an important difference between the theory of genetic engineering and the practice of industrial agriculture. One that is conveniently left out of debates by those on both sides of the issue.

Final score: Monsanto: 1, Chipotle: 4

What do you think? How was my scoring? Do you have more or less respect for Monsanto after sifting through Dr. Fraley's thoughts on GMOs? And, maybe most importantly, is it actually a good thing that Chipotle is getting rid of GMOs or is just greenwashing that won't ultimately make a difference?


  1. Nice. Though I'm not sure why you gave point three to Chipotle? The logic seemed to be "Fraley's point refers to benefits at an industrial agricultural level; Industrial Ag is bad for the environment; therefore Chipotle wins this round". Does not follow. With or without GMOs to support such a large chain of restaurants Chipotle will not escape the industrial ag supply chain. And since the question at hand is firmly rooted in industrial agriculture then shouldn't Fraley's point hold sway? I think you got that one wrong.

    In re your question - No mulching would not work at an industrial level. 1) Spacing is an issue when maximizing crop yields; 2) mulching is a temp fix, does not stop weeds just reduces them; and 3) think of the straw production/transportation/labor costs it would incur. Meanwhile no-till agriculture reduces labor costs, builds soil health and is a carbon sink.

    Just a thought.

  2. Hmm, I'll think that over. You make a good point that Chipotle is fast food and part of big ag either way.