Tortilla Reform

Critics of Chipotle’s new GMO-free menu claim the restaurant chain is pandering to paranoia and that GM foods are perfectly safe to eat. But they’re ignoring the bigger issue.

Last week, Chipotle — the Mexican fast-food chain that has earned (well-deserved) praise for its commitment to sourcing sustainable ingredients — made a big announcement. Effective immediately, the company said, diners in its more than 1,500 restaurants nationwide could rest assured that none of what has gone into their chicken tacos or veggie bowls has come from a genetically modified organism (GMO), i.e., a crop whose genetic profile has been altered in some way, usually in order to make it easier or cheaper to grow.

If executives had expected praise for the decision, they were in for a surprise. Within days, major media outlets were heaping on the cynicism like burrito toppings. In some of the nation’s largest and most high-profile publications, Chipotle was criticized for “crass profit-seeking at the expense of science” (Los Angeles Times), for indulging in “opportunistic anti-science hysteria” (New York magazine), and for “adding its imprimatur to a global propaganda campaign…contrary to the best scientific knowledge” (Washington Post).

The backlash seems to mark a conventional-wisdom turning point in the public controversy over GMOs. Twenty years ago, many of these same media outlets were expressing genuine concern at the idea of Big Agriculture tinkering with the DNA of our biggest commodity crops. The science wasn’t in yet, they warned; and until it was, we couldn’t simply assume there were no long-term health risks attached to the eating of GMOs.

But today — a dozen years and a number of well-publicized studies later — the mainstream media’s new line would appear to be: Stop whining and eat your engineered vegetables. “[A]mple research and decades of experience have shown that genetically modified crop technology is safe,” tsk-tsked the editors of the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, before going on to chide Chipotle for “missing an opportunity to educate [consumers] on the nuances of food science.”

The Tribune’s editors got at least one thing right. The science on GMOs is nuanced, and consumers do deserve to be educated as to the implications of allowing this juggernaut to continue rolling — acre by fundamentally altered acre — across our nation’s agricultural heartland. And once these consumers are made aware of all the implications, many are chastened to discover something that environmental scientists like myself have been stressing for years: Just because genetically modified crops have been deemed safe to ingest doesn’t make them safe to grow.

In its announcement, Chipotle singled out two of the most widely grown GM ingredients, soy and corn, as the ones it would be eliminating from its menu. The GM versions of these crops have been modified to tolerate heavy contact with powerful herbicides, which are then sprayed — liberally — onto our fields, killing opportunistic weeds but leaving GM crops intact. As a means of weed control, it all works reasonably well…until, suddenly and inevitably, it doesn’t anymore. With the passage of each growing season, natural selection sees to it that any weeds sturdy enough to resist the chemical toxins in these herbicides are rewarded with similarly resistant offspring.

And how does Big Ag respond to these new invaders? By ramping up the toxicity of its herbicides in hopes that ever-stronger combinations of chemicals will be able to stave off — for a little while longer, at least — the ever-stronger iterations of “superweeds” that its products have helped to create.

Wars of attrition tend to be long and gruesome affairs, and this one has already claimed the lives of tens of millions of innocent bystanders. Monarchs are among the most recognizable and beloved species of butterfly to be found in the United States. But over the last 15 years, the population of these pollinators migrating southward to spend their winters in Mexico has dropped by 90 percent, due in large part to the popularity of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready line of GM corn and soy crops — specially engineered to withstand exposure to Roundup, the brand name for glyphosate, a chemical herbicide that also happens to be made by Monsanto. The widespread application of glyphosate on so much of the agricultural Midwest has led to the dramatic loss of milkweed, the native wildflower that is the only plant on which monarchs will lay eggs and the main food source for monarch caterpillars.

But as effective as glyphosate has been at killing milkweed, it’s no longer powerful enough to kill any number of other superweeds that have managed to develop a resistance to it over successive growing seasons. Now Monsanto has teamed up with rival Dow AgroSciences to develop new strains of corn and soy that will tolerate exposure to the next revolution in chemical weaponry that Big Ag — with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s utterly wrongheaded approval — is unleashing on our farmland: a product known as Enlist Duo. By combining glyphosate (which has already been classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen) with 2,4D, an herbicide that has been linked to decreased fertility, birth defects, and thyroid problems in humans, the two companies believe they’ve come up with a real winner.

If your definition of “winning” the war against weeds is spraying more and more of our GMO-planted acreage with stronger and stronger chemical toxins that not only damage the environment but risk our public health, then by all means: Take the advice of the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and other major media. Relax. Just don’t get too relaxed. At some point, Enlist Duo — like its predecessor, Roundup — ­will reveal itself to be ineffective against the next batch of superweeds to rise up triumphantly from the chemically scorched earth. But you can be sure that the best minds at Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences are already hard at work developing new, and even more potent, herbicidal cocktails to kill that batch of invaders and anticipating the battles to come.

There are other, time-tested ways to win the battle against weeds that don’t require us to wage perpetual, ever-escalating chemical warfare against nature. Chipotle’s decision to eliminate herbicide-tolerant GMOs fits squarely with their larger commitment to sustainable farming practices. By declaring themselves conscientious objectors, the company’s executives aren’t ignoring science. But those who would define the word “safe” in only the narrowest personal sense of the word might fairly be accused of it.