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Hey, Chipotle! Don’t Look Now, But It’s “Turtles All the Way Down!”

Chipotle precipitated a media flurry with their recent announcement that they will henceforth “cook only with non-GMO ingredients.” They go on to say “A GMO is created by inserting genes from one species (typically bacteria or a virus) into the DNA of another. This can result in a plant with characteristics that wouldn’t occur naturally, such as producing pesticides or the ability to withstand high doses of chemical herbicides.”

Chipotle is of course free to make whatever business decisions they choose. But it has been refreshing to see them taken to task by a variety of skeptical voices. But let’s consider their reasoning.

Is Chipotle’s menu now free of “GMO ingredients?” Even if we accept their indefensible definition of GMO (see below), the answer is no. Consider cheese, a significant player on the Chipotle menu. The vast majority of cheese (80-90%) produced in the US is manufactured with fermentation produced chymosin (FPC) derived from genetically engineered bacteria. The FPC remains in the finished product, invalidating even the Jesuitical distinction between “containing” and “made with.” Also consider their soft drinks. Most of them contain high fructose corn syrup derived from GM corn. These facts deliver two fatal blows to Chipotle’s GM free claims.

What about their definition of GMOs? Are they modified to possess “characteristics that wouldn’t occur naturally?” These, too, fall prey to the facts.

Is a plant that produces pesticides something not found in nature? Not so much. Lacking the ability to flee from herbivores, plants have been compelled by natural selection to develop other means of defense including chemical warfare. From an herbivores point of view, a tree can be seen as a mountain of poison. This fact is not without relevance to human diets, though perhaps not quite the way most would expect. As noted in a landmark paper , “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” So Chipotle’s suggestion that “plants producing pesticides” are somehow unnatural, and limited to GMOs, is false.

As for the argument that GMOs contain an “unnatural” ability “…to withstand high doses of chemical herbicides,” this has been debunked as well. It’s also an argument that asks us to believe something patently nonsensical. Any farmer who would willingly use a “high dose” of an herbicide (or pesticide, or fertilizer) where a low dose would be effective, will not long be a farmer. In a ruthlessly competitive world, farmers making such imprudent choices would quickly go out of business. Chipotle’s argument asks us to believe farmers routinely make decisions against their own interests, to waste money on herbicides applied at levels greater than necessary to control the weeds that otherwise would severely reduce the amount and quality of their harvests. And far from overdosing their fields, the application rates used by farmers spread about the volume of Chipotle’s medium fountain drink over a football field, using the farm equipment equivalent of an eyedropper.

There is a further irony here. Some have argued that GMOs are lamentable because they lead to the evolution of “superweeds” though the data show this isn’t true. Some have also argued GMOs are lamentable because they lead to greater use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture, though this, too, is untrue. Chipotle spokespeople have made both of these claims, and suggested that switching from (GMO derived) soybean oil to (non GM) sunflower oil is therefore more in keeping with their notion of “food with integrity.” But again, the facts tell a different story. The sunflower oil Chipotle is now using is not only more expensive, but the source sunflowers are tolerant (thanks to a chemically induced genetic modification) to a class of herbicides to which weeds have evolved resistance at four times the rate seen to date with glyphosate. Oops.

But the most fundamental flaws in Chipotle’s rationale relate to their attempt to draw a distinction between GMOs and other organisms by claiming GMOs “unnaturally” contain genes from other species, suggesting that “good” foods do not. This notion is contradicted by what we find in nature.

The avalanche of DNA sequence data produced over the past decade has made it clear just how rich the linkages are between all living organisms on planet Earth, united as they (we) all are by descent from common ancestors. This means, of course, that we all share many genes in common. But not all the sharing results from common ancestry – a portion of it is the result of what geneticists call “horizontal gene transfer” whereby genes move laterally between different lineages, rather than simply from parents to offspring, as is most common.

Horizontal gene transfer is a fascinating phenomenon, and DNA sequence data has confirmed that it is ubiquitous: so much so that the single most common gene in the human genome is a viral DNA sequence known as AluI. This sequence came from a virus, and cannot by any stretch be considered a “human” gene except that it is the most common DNA sequence in our genomes. This pattern is so widespread in nature that fascinating stories documenting examples have become a cottage industry in modern science writing. The phenomenon is entirely natural and seems to have been fundamental to the evolution of all life on earth. Though the illumination of this truth has come most richly from the explosion of DNA sequence data over the past decade, we’ve known the underlying truth about the relationships among living organisms at least since 1859. And everything that modern genetic engineers do to improve seeds in the lab is done using techniques discovered happening in nature, with enzymes discovered in and extracted from the organisms that practice these gene transfers in nature. It is simply not possible to mount a fact based argument that GMOs are different in any meaningful way from what we find widespread in nature. And, of course, the only safety differentials ever uncovered have favored food derived from GMOs over foods from other production methods. Don’t take my word for it – consult the data.

So what does this mean? The facts are as clear as they are unavoidable – every food that appears or has ever appeared on a dinner plate anywhere on the planet comes from genetically modified organisms. There isn’t an organism on the planet that isn’t genetically modified, and anyone who tries to make the argument that ”genetically modified” is a meaningful category, contrasted with “non-GMO” is pushing nonsense. Indeed, as one scholar has noted, “Civilization was built on genetically modified plants.” One is reminded of a story told by Stephen Hawking:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

“Food with integrity” is an evocative slogan. It is, however, not clear what it means. But one thing we can be sure of is that integrity is not a hallmark of a marketing campaign that is so consistently and profoundly contradicted by facts. Chipotle has a product which, as fast food goes, has significant virtues. It would be nice if their corporate leadership would simply market their food on its merits, and leave the deception and manipulation to others. As the Washington Post put it, “…no one should confuse…[this] companies’ behavior with real corporate responsibility. That would require companies to push back against the orchestrated fear of GMOs instead of validating it.”

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