The last few days at Chipotle HQ could not have been much fun for the people running the marketing and public relations operation. The response to their announcement that they are removing some GMO ingredients from some of their menu items was not exactly met with the round of applause they must have been expecting. It’s been more of a collective raspberry. Here is a sample of headlines from mainstream, mostly liberal, mostly prestigious outlets:
TIME: Why Chipotle Mexican Grill Going GMO-Free is Terrible News
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC:What Chipotle’s Ban on GMOs Says About Us
SLATE: Chipotle Wants to Sell “Food With Integrity.” Dropping GMOs Is the Wrong Way to Do It.
DAILY BEAST: We’re Paranoid About GMO Foods Because of Pseudo-Science
BLOOMBERG VIEW: Chipotle Bans Credibility
NPR: Why We Can’t Take Chipotle’s GMO Announcement All That Seriously
CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Chipotle’s GMO message is muddled
WASHINGTON POST: Chipotle’s GMO gimmick is hard to swallow
NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Chipotle Is Promoting Opportunistic Anti-Science Hysteria
LOS ANGELES TIMES: Chipotle’s junk science on GMOs
MOTHER JONES: Chipotle Says It’s Getting Rid of GMOs. Here’s the Problem.
VOX: Chipotle will stop serving GMO foods — despite zero evidence they’re harmful to eat
GIZMODO: Chipotle’s Anti-GMO Stance Is Some Anti-Science Pandering Bullshit
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: Why Tyson antibiotic-free chicken is a bigger deal than GMO-free Chipotle
For the PR team it must feel more like a scandal being leaked, rather than an exciting new initiative. It was bad enough that the Ad Week blog did a post on it (pictured above) under the category “PR Fail”. When you’ve lost the support of Mother Jones on your sustainable food strategy, you are in big trouble. Ouch.
The response in the press centered around three themes.
A. There is no credible health or safety reason to remove genetically engineered ingredients from menus. In fact, the scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is even more definitive than the consensus on global warming. This is not surprising, because it’s a much simpler, more straight forward question. Writers were quick to point this out. There was widespread concern that Chipotle’s marketing would only contribute to increasing unfounded, anti-science and pseudo-scientific fears.
B. The move was hypocritical and opportunistic. Chipotle is only switching ingredients like corn meal for tortillas and soybean oil for cooking and leaving their meat sources and soda fountain untouched. When it comes to the demand for biotech crops, the corn meal and sunflower oil that Chipotle is swapping out are small potatoes compared to the demand for biotech corn and soy driven by meat and high fructose corn syrup production. Some of the more sophisticated commenters pointed out that the rennet used to culture cheese will continue to be biotech, as it has been since we’ve stopped harvesting it from veal cattle for cheese making.
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C. A few (too few) pointed out the issue I poked fun at the other day: This move is a step backwards in terms of pesticide use and so-called “superweeds”. Farmers adopted herbicide tolerant corn and soy in order to use less herbicide and switch to a glyphosate, a safer herbicide. When you take that away, farmers don’t stop using herbicides, they switch back to the herbicides they were using before.
The excellent Dan Charles, NPR’s agriculture reporter, was one of the few who went to the center of the bullseye on this one:
As an example of the ways that GMOs can damage the environment, Chipotle points to the problems caused by herbicide-tolerant GMO crops and how they encourage farmers to use a single herbicide, usually glyphosate, or Roundup. This, in turn, has led to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, which Chipotle calls “superweeds.”
Chipotle’s answer to this, per its new non-GMO policy, is to switch from soybean oil to sunflower oil.
The problem is, many sunflower varieties, while not genetically modified, also are herbicide-tolerant. They were bred to tolerate a class of herbicides called ALS inhibitors. And since farmers starting relying on those herbicides, many weeds have evolved resistance to them. In fact, many more weeds have become resistant to ALS inhibitors than to glyphosate.
Why should Chipotle bemoan the emergence of weeds that are resistant to glyphosate, yet not to other weedkillers?
THE BIG MYSTERY
The thing that had many of us scratching our heads over yesterday was: What was animating this backlash in places where espousing the goals of the food movement is usually met with approval and encouragement? Just two years ago the decision by Whole Foods to implement full GMO labeling was widely met with approving coverage. It feels like a switch has flipped. What has changed since then?
Let me suggest five phenomena contributing to this turn of events.
1.) The Rise of the Celebrity Quack Has Shown That Quackery Has Consequences
The success of Jenny McCarthy, Foodbabe, Dr. Oz and other celebrity quacks brought quackery out of the shadows and dark corners of the internet and forced mainstream journalists to confront the phenomenon head on. In the case of Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaxx advocacy, we’ve seen some really horrible consequences in form of measles and whooping cough outbreaks. Journalists have become wary of contributing to this kind of stuff by “covering the controversy”.
In the case of Foodbabe, we have someone who has taken Michael Pollan’s unobjectionable rule of thumb to avoid foods with hard to pronounce ingredients turned it into a scientifically illiterate, paranoid baton for bullying companies into getting rid of polysyllabic ingredients, completely divorced from any rational risk assessment. It’s no coincidence that she is vehemently anti-GMO. She stands as proof that there is no way to completely idiot proof nutrition advice, even by as talented a wordsmith and popularizer as Pollan. But she has also starting to wield real power and is positioned to wreak some real world pseudo-scientific havoc. If she becomes the most prominent part of Michael Pollan’s legacy, he owes us all a very big apology.
While she has a growing, committed following, not everyone has been charmed by Foodbabe’s combination of aggressive science illiteracy; free range paranoia; and boundless upper middle class sense of entitlement. She’s a demon mash up of an Oberlin freshman working at the co-op and a Real Housewife of Orange County whining about her headache and the sulfites in her chardonnay. What began as a New York Times profile quickly transformed into a brutal takedown. Just today on Vox we get this headline: How should journalists cover quacks like Dr. Oz or the Food Babe?.
The quacks have worn out their welcome and their anti-GMO stance has been duly noted by the press.
2.) The Climate Change Debate Has Brought the Concept of Scientific Consensus to the Center Stage
Related to the backlash against quackery, is the growing importance of the concept of scientific consensus. It has been central to the climate change debate and journalists are learning that they veer away from the scientific consensus at their peril.
Journalists can’t be experts at everything. One way to cut through the noise is to understand where the scientific consensus lies and anchor around that. Is there a controversy? Is the controversy because the evidence just isn’t clear yet and legitimate scientists have legitimate differences over what can understand so far? Or is there a controversy because one side is made up of cranks and quacks with an agenda who twist and misrepresent the evidence to fit suit their needs?
As I said above, the scientific consensus on GMO safety is even more solid than the one around climate change. After a decade of covering or following the climate debate, it’s no coincidence that Chipotle’s departure from the scientific consensus was the number one issue critics seized on.
Here the thing about the general backlash against quackery – once you’ve seen it one or two forms – you get to know the pattern and habits of quacks and you can recognize it in other fields without having to do a lot of homework on the subject.
3.) The GMO labeling campaign has been a crash course on GMOs for mainstream journalists.
The mandatory GMO labeling campaigns in California, Washington, Vermont and other states drew new reporters to the subject. Previously GMOs had been the subject of the occasional health or agriculture article, now they were everywhere.
Reporters have stopped interviewing obvious cranks like Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety and charlatans like Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology to present the anti-GMO side of the story. They have been looking to more sober voices like the Union of Concerned Scientists (though, they have been widely criticized by the scientific community for their outlier stance on GMOs and recently cleaned house, letting two key staffers go). Meanwhile, reporters are turning to several independent scientists where they used to turn to “industry spokesperson”. All this has shifted the Overton Window on GMOs in the direction of reality and away from lazy misinformation.
Editorial boards in California and Washington overwhelming came out against mandatory labeling once they had done their homework. That’s what happens when people who know how to research, assess credibility of sources, and have no dog in the fight take a closer look at the GMO debate. It becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly, that when it comes to the risks of biotech breeding, the science is settled and it’s is only contested by crazy people.
On some of the more sophisticated environmental and business issues, it becomes clear that the critiques of biotech crops are really just generic critiques of industrial agriculture that have nothing to do with the breeding techniques. As Dan Charles pointed out, the “superweed” problem was equally, if not more applicable to the non-GMO option.
A story by Amy Harmon in the New York Times is about a county commissioner in Hawaii, rather than a journalist, but it lays out the roadmap of what this process looks like:
“You just type ‘G.M.O.’ and everything you see is negative,” he told his staff. Opposing the ban also seemed likely to ruin anyone’s re-election prospects.
Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island’s papaya farmers said that an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease. A study reporting that a diet of G.M.O. corn caused tumors in rats, mentioned often by the ban’s supporters, turned out to have been thoroughly debunked.
And University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.
“Are we going to just ignore them?” Mr. Ilagan wondered.
… As he traversed the island and the Internet, Mr. Ilagan agreed with constituents that there was good reason to suspect that companies like Monsanto would place profit above public safety. He, too, wished for more healthful food to be grown more sustainably.
But even a national ban on such crops, it seemed to him, would do little to solve the problems of an industrial food system that existed long before their invention. Nor was it likely to diminish the market power of the “Big Ag” companies, which also dominate sales of seeds that are not genetically modified, and the pesticides used on both. The arguments for rejecting them, he concluded, ultimately relied on the premise that they are unsafe.
Mr. Ilagan, just like any journalist or editor who digs into the issue, learns that the Seralini rat study was nonsense, that there are no sterile “terminator” seeds, that butterflies are not dying from a toxin produced by transgenic plants – but from farmers success in removing milkweed from their farms. He learns that farmers in India were committing suicide because of crippling debt whether they used Bt cotton or not. He learned that there is lots of independent and publicly funded research, despite what he had been told. One myth after another fell like dominoes when he put in the time to check with credible sources.
It become obvious to anyone who looks at the issue with fresh eyes and hews to credible sources that the bulk of objections to biotech crops are based on misinformation and faulty logic.
The labeling campaign has pushed many journalists through this same process. And it has had the exact opposite effect that labeling proponents were hoping for. This is obvious when you look at the reaction to Chipotle’s move.
4.) The Scarecrow and Farmed and Dangerous Put Chipotle on Thin Ice
Last year, the Chipotle marketing department released an emotionally powerful promo video about a Scarecrow who was very sad about the industrial food system and a not so subtle (or funny) four episode TV series called Farmed and Dangerous. Both offered a somewhat fact challenged critique of industrial agriculture. With these investments, Chipotle signaled to the world that they were going to market the shit out of their sustainability cred and make sure that everyone knew that they were better than everyone else.
This undoubtedly put a lot people on guard for marketing BS, and people were ready to see a Chipotle get their comeuppance. After substantive changes on things like antibiotics, local sourcing, and animal welfare issues – a superficial move like switching to GMO free cornmeal and cooking oil, while leaving meat and soda untouched came across like a cynical marketing ploy. Apparently, there were plenty of people waiting to pounce. And pounce they did.
5.) People Are Fed Up With the Sanctimony of the Consumerist Wing of the Food Movement
This is the most obvious, most universal reason for the Chipotle backlash.
When the food movement was all about addressing serious health and environmental problems, increasing food security for the vulnerable, and rebuilding community through shared cooking and dining, it was something everybody wanted to be a part of it. As the most highly visible exemplars of the food movement have become entitled shoppers and diners finding ways to signal their superior education, taste, and virtue – it’s just become a boor. The setup to the punchline of a Portlandia sketch.
That many have run out of patience for hearing about how virtuous food can be was on full display this past week.