Chipotle has been making headlines for all the wrong reason these past few months. Since July of last year, 6 foodborne pathogen outbreaks have been traced to different Chipotle restaurants, and ownership was issued a subpoena for a federal investigation into one of those outbreaks.
Ironically, the Chipotle empire was built on the premise of being a healthier alternative to other fast food chains. The restaurant’s motto, “food with integrity”, is based on their dedication to using “responsibly-raised” animals for meat and dairy and locally-grown, organic produce.
In keeping with their mantra, just months before the first outbreak was reported, the company announced it was ridding its menu of all genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The company released a statement that read, “using [GMOs] in our food doesn’t align with [our] vision.” The statement went on to cite unknown long-term effects on human health and the environment as key reasons why GMOs were getting the ax from their menu. However, the science behind GMO safety is more abundant and sound than anti-GMO groups suggest.
GMO refers to any organism that has had its genetic material (DNA) altered by genetic engineering techniques. Genetic engineering of plants and animals has advanced dramatically since the first genetically modified mouse in 1974. The genetic engineering of the 20th century relied on random integration into the host genome. In 2011 the first examples of targeted genome were presented, and in 2015, the CRISPR-Cas9 system became one the hottest trends in science. Targeted genome editing techniques, like CRISPR, allow scientists to accurately and efficiently insert and delete genes from the genome of virtually every species, including the species that we eat.
One of the best examples of a successful GM food is the Rainbow papaya. In the 1990’s Hawaii’s papaya crops were nearly depleted due to a rampant spread of Papaya Ringspot Virus transmitted by insects.By inserting a harmless gene from the virus into the papaya genome, scientists were able to effectively immunized the fruit to the virus and save Hawaii’s papaya industry. Importantly, the inserted viral gene was not only harmless to humans, but also the environment.
Another success story in the world of GMOs is that of Bt crops. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a common soil bacteria that produce insecticidal toxins called Cry toxins. The gene that encodes these toxins was inserted into the genomes of corn, cotton, and potatoes, and these GM crops were determined to be safe for humans and the environment by multiple studies. These crops were therefore safe for humans and the environment while reducing the need for more toxic insecticides.
It has been shown that GMOs generally reduce the need for pesticides , especially insecticides. The most commonly used pesticides are glyphosate-based. These chemicals have been studied at length and deemed relatively safe by all reputable studies. However, dependency on the use of glyphosate will breed pests that are glyphosate-resistant, and force farmers to resort to new, more effective pesticides. This metaphorical arm’s race could wreak havoc on the environment and risk public health by exposing consumers and farmers to less well-studied compounds.
Anti-GMO groups often push organic produce as a better option, but organics are more expensive to grow, and purchase, which hurts producers and consumers, especially those with low income. Moreover, studies have correlated the consumption of organic produce with disease, and recent years have seen increases in recalls on organic products. One extreme example of organic crops causing illness outbreak is from Germany, where 3,000 illnesses and 31 deaths were attributed to locally-grown, organic sprouts.
Recently, there has been a growing anti-GMO movement in the U.S. Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that only 37% of U.S. adults believe GMOs are safe to eat, while the majority (57%) believes such foods are unsafe. However, that same survey found that 88% of scientists believe GMOs are safe for human consumption. One source of contention for the anti-GMO crowd is a highly controversial publication from 2012 that claims that GM corn and a common herbicide can induce tumor growth and cause other dramatic physiological changes in rats. The scientific community strongly criticized the paper, citing irreproducibility, poor experimental design, use of a tumor-prone rat strain, and selective data representation as flaws in the study.
As the anti-GMO movement grows in the U.S., more food distributors could move away from GMOs and toward more in-demand, organic products, like Chipotle. Unfortunately, organics are not necessarily a healthier alternative, and the shift away from GMOs may actually be harmful to agriculture and human health in the long run. Ultimately, public opinion on GMOs will have a major impact in determining what constitutes “food with integrity”.
For more on the GMO controversy check out this article from Slate.
ANTHONY BARRASSO IS A THIRD YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT. CURRENTLY, HE STUDIES RETINAL DEVELOPMENT. ANTHONY’S CAREER INTERESTS INCLUDE CANCER RESEARCH, EDUCATION, AND POLITICS. OUTSIDE OF LAB, HE LIKES PLAYING WITH HIS DOG AND EATING DELICIOUS FOOD. FOLLOW ANTHONY ON TWITTER @BARRASSO67