Chipotle’s GMO- (and evidence-) free marketing strategy

In a (not very) bold move, the restaurant chain Chipotle has announced that they are moving to a completely GMO-free menu. Reading the NYTimes article, there is a startling lack of explanation for why the chain is spending the effort and additional cost to source certified GMO-free ingredients:

Chipotle’s chefs preferred sunflower oil but finding enough was tricky. Chipotle found a farmer willing to increase his production of sunflower, but the company needed more oil than he could produce.

So instead of using one oil for the majority of its needs, Chipotle now uses sunflower to fry its chips and tortillas, while a non-G.M.O. rice bran oil will be mixed into rice and used to fry fajita vegetables.

Given that there has never been a single reputable article to support the claims of the anti-GMO crowd that GMOs are harmful, and given the 20-plus years of crops with genetically-engineered traits raised and eaten, the reason for a major chain to do this seems baffling. Then, this:

So Chipotle’s flour tortillas are now made with a non-G.M.O. canola oil, which costs more, and the company said last week that it might have to raise prices slightly this year.

So, given the lack of scientific evidence indicating a difference, why are they doing it? Marketing, I think. It’s brilliant, really. They have chosen a marketing strategy that pays for itself by justifying higher prices, borrowing a page from the Whole Foods playbook. Never mind that there is nothing wrong with GMO foods, there doesn’t have to be. Just by marketing the fact that their food is not GMO, they are able to set up a (false) dichotomy in consumers’ minds, planting the idea that perhaps GMO foods are not as healthy. And they don’t even have to make a case, really, because just to suggest a difference is enough. It doesn’t matter that they are playing a game of ‘cooties’ or ‘cheese touch‘, as long as it works to devalue the other options.

Here is Chipotle’s page explaining the decision. It comes down to 2 reasons (their 3rd is just preference): 1) GMOs need to be studied more, which is really the precautionary principle — prove no harm — which is quite difficult to do; and 2) GMOs harm the environment. These are the planks of the anti-GMO party platform, and both have been roundly refuted. Perhaps the fact that we now have definitive evidence that the exact same process of genetic engineering has been occurring in the wild for millions of years will help to convince some that there is no inherent risk in the technology itself?

Anyway, go ahead and enjoy a 1200-calorie GMO-free burrito. Whatever you do, though, don’t even think about washing it down with a Coke. That stuff is LOADED with sugar from GMOs! I wonder why they’re still selling that?

No Such Thing as Natural Foods

I mentioned previously how much I was looking forward to the series of food posts on a Smithsonian blog called Design Decoded, and it did not disappoint. From the last post of the series:

While mandarins are natural, in the sense that they grow on trees planted in soil, the popular varieties sold in the supermarket are the product of decades of human intervention. In other words: they are heavily designed.

There is, I think, a fascinating tension in our understanding of food, and this quote gets at the heart of it. In part, it has to do with our use of the term ‘natural’ as an approximation for a whole bunch of intentions. When we call a food natural we probably also mean healthful and wholesome and pure, and on some level believe it could not hurt us. But almost nothing we eat is actually natural, in the sense that it exists in the same form in nature. All food, almost by definition, has co-evolved with humans for thousands of years, being chosen out of a wild population for some favored quality and selectively propagated through the generations. What the series of posts at Design Decoded points out is that now we have added marketability to the list of qualities under selection for a growing number of produce items, which is, I guess, the natural progression of things.

Designing the Perfect Fruit

Designing the Perfect Fruit

I’m really looking forward to this series on Design Decoded:

We’ll look at decades of experimentation in plant genetics geared toward improving the user interface of the mandarin; the novelty of marketing fresh fruits and vegetables; the rise, fall, and comeback of graphic design in the produce aisle; and growers’ ongoing battle to keep bees from trespassing and pollinating their seedless crops. Nature may be the original designer, but much human ingenuity is responsible for optimizing the mandarin.

I’ve got something rolling around in my head about this idea of ‘human ingenuity’ and the foods we eat, maybe this series will help crystallize it for me.

Dangerous RNA in Food?

[Update Jan 13: The original article has been edited and extensively modified in response to reader feedback. The author has acknowledged several mistakes in the original and generally improved the clarity of his argument. However, the main point I make in response remains despite the changes to the original. —cw]

As I wrote about previously, a research group has shown that miRNA from rice is present in human blood and can influence gene expression in the liver. In response to this work, Ari Levaux (@arilevaux) has published a somewhat sensationalistic opinion for The Atlantic that concludes:

The news that we’re ingesting information as well as physical material should force the biotech industry to confront the possibility that new DNA can have dangerous implications far beyond the products it codes for.

Most of the article takes aim at the purported implications of this research for GMO foods. Specifically, he believes this finding contradicts the long-standing policy of “substantial equivalence” claimed by the pro-GMO producers. If I were an author of this study, I would be disappointed to have my work so badly misconstrued for the general public.

Clearly, LeVaux has an axe to grind with the large, multi-national agribusiness industry (who doesn’t, besides incumbent politicians?). And I don’t necessarily even support the concept of substantial equivalence, but I must point out that there is a major hole in the evidence between “the food we eat can regulate gene expression in a new way” (the new research) and “GMOs are dangerous to human diet because they contain new DNA” (LeVaux’s claim).

If the uptake of miRNA from food is widespread (which is not known yet), then potentially every food we eat of biological origin could have previously unknown effects on the cells of our body. Think about that for a moment and I think you will agree that to focus on GMO foods is to miss the potential scope of this finding. If widespread (again, a big if), then wouldn’t every food need to be reevaluated as a precaution? This is nothing short of the kind of shift in thinking that humanity underwent upon discovering the need for essential vitamins, maybe bigger.

The other big problem I have with LeVaux’s piece is that there is no reason to think that the miRNAs in GMO corn would be any different than those in nonGMO corn. Most GMO corn carries one of the Cry1 genes from soil bacteria, encoding a protein that is toxic to insect larvae. What is the proposed connection between the expression of this gene and any miRNA expression? None, as far as I know and as far as LeVaux informs me. Back to the quote above from his article, there is nothing new or known to be harmful in ‘ingesting information’, we have been doing it as long as we’ve been eating, apparently.

The unlikely cheeseburger

Waldo Jaquith has posted a thought-provoking essay on preparing a cheeseburger from scratch. Not from scratch as in, buy the ground beef and make them into patties yourself, but as in, raise absolutely everything that is a part of the meal yourself. He comes to the surprising (at least for me) conclusion that this is actually impossible:

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh.

His essay reminds me of a story about the Big Mac from a few years ago. This article and the research paper on which it is reporting focuses on the incredible diversity and global reach of a simple fast food meal. In this case, a #1 Combo meal at McD’s includes ingredients from 20 species of broad diversity across the tree of life:

We argue that the remarkable breadth of the human diet is the result of humans’ huge geographic range, diverse food-collection methods, and ability to process normally inedible items. Humans are thus generalist feeders in the broadest sense. Cross-cultural analyses of diversity in the plant diet of humans could represent a fascinating new field of research linking ecology, anthropology, history, and sociology.

Bad economics and local food

Steve Sexton, writing on the Freakonomics blog, has an interesting post on the inefficiency of local food:

But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.

He goes on to argue that, for most crops, a “return” to more localized production would spell disaster for the environment and food prices. The blog post is a summary of a longer piece he published in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, published by the University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. Sexton takes the “locavore” movement to task for failing to appreciate the fundamental economic principles at work in modern agribusiness, including economies of scale and comparative advantage. In addition, his analysis concludes there would be a massive increase in land use for agriculture, fertilizer input, and carbon footprint.

However, his analysis makes the assumption that each state would grow their own share of commodity crops. By approaching the question this way, it seems to me that his analysis seeks to package the current production system into state-sized units, the result of which is to conclude that it would be better to keep it the way it is.

This is not at all what I think anybody means when they talk about local food. How many local food proponents have you heard arguing that the problem with high-fructose corn syrup is that the corn is grown in another state, and that it would be better if Ohioans drank soda with all-Ohio HFCS? Yet that is exactly the model he is testing. And that is obviously not the important or even relevant part of our food system. The problem is not that my HFCS is not local, the problem is that HFCS is super-cheap because of our current ag policy and replaces more nutrient-dense calories for too many kids and adults.

I also take exception to the way he compares yield from the days when farms raised more commodity crops to yields on large, monoculture farms today (in the full analysis). To even suggest that yields from the 1930s would be relevant today is misleading, even if he admits today’s yields would be far higher. Just the difference in yield brought about by hybrid cultivars developed in the 1960s make this comparison a nonstarter. In fact, I’m not even certain there would be any reduction in yield due to the scale of the farm with modern cultivars, I’m having trouble thinking why there would be.

Regardless of what the predictions are for the future of local food, a recent report from the USDA showed local farms accounted for $4.8 billion in sales in 2008, far beyond earlier estimates. I guess somebody should tell these farmers they’re wasting their time, local food won’t work. I wonder how much of the $4.8 billion was local dent corn?

Local food goes hydroponic

When I think of food grown in a greenhouse, my mind tends to think of bland, spongy hot-house tomatoes that were harvested and gassed with ethylene and shipped from too far away. This never made much sense to me, because I could imagine growing much higher profit foods near a large market for fresh foods if a little technology were applied. I recall having an extended conversation with one of my Ph.D. advisors about just such a plan. His training was in both biology and electrical engineering, and he envisioned refrigerator-sized devices in which restaurants or households would one day grow their own greens all year round. In the past few weeks, I’ve read a few articles about companies that are aiming for the same target.

In one example, a company called Gotham Greens has transformed an abandoned rooftop bowling alley in Brooklyn into a production greenhouse with an advanced hydroponic growing system. Rooftop gardens are really fascinating, but most that I’ve heard about are not growing food at production scale. Gotham Greens provides fresh greens and herbs to NYC restaurants and upscale grocery stores, and it sounds like they sell everything they can grow already and are looking for more roof space.

In another example, a company based in Atlanta called PodPonics, retrofits a hydroponic system into standard shipping containers. They claim they can grow an acre’s worth of produce in a 320 square foot area. Their system is more intriguing to me because they’re supplying not only the hydroponic solution, but also controlling CO2 and regulating temperature, humidity, and pH. And because all of this is within a closed container, they’re also delivering the light. Their vision is to be able to install these near major distributors and feed fresh produce directly into the supply chain.

To me, this is an interesting twist on the concept of local food, although probably not what most people envision for that concept. I’m most intrigued by the PodPonics concept, mainly because I could see these pods being plugged into a power source in Fargo in January and cranking out a better salad than one shipped in from Salinas, CA or South America, and that’s worth paying attention to.

RNA in Food Alters Metabolism

In what I would consider a bombshell finding, researchers have demonstrated a new way that food can influence our metabolism. For the first time, researchers have identified microRNAs that originated in grains of rice circulating in the blood serum of research subjects. MicroRNAs are short sequences of RNA that can bind to messenger RNA sequences and cause their degradation, thus influencing gene expression. From the article:

Like vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients derived from food sources, plant miRNAs may serve as a novel functional component of food and make a critical contribution to maintaining and shaping animal body structure and function.

Not only did the researchers simply identify miRNAs from plants in human blood plasma and serum, they also demonstrated a physiological effect in a mouse. Using bioinformatics, they identified a number of candidate targets that the specific miRNA may interact with. One of the candidates is involved in cholesterol metabolism, and by feeding the rice to mice, they were able to observe a change in cholesterol processing within 3 hours of feeding.

There are so many implications to this finding, I’m not sure where to start. One of the first thoughts that came to mind was the ongoing discussion surrounding organic foods. I have always been of the opinion that there could be only slight advantages, if any at all, to eating organic fruits and vegetables in terms of the actual food quality itself, assuming any potentially harmful substances had been removed from conventionally grown produce. But wouldn’t it stand to reason that there could be significant differences between the microRNAs actively expressed in organic crops compared to conventional ones? And if that’s the case, their influence on human health could be dramatically different.

I guess this same research group had shown several years ago that microRNAs that are secreted from cells can circulate in blood and influence expression elsewhere in the body, so in some ways this work is following on the same idea. Depending on where this work goes from here, and how wide-ranging the implications turn out to be, this seems like the kind of research that can attract serious attention from the Nobel folks. Makes me wonder why it’s in Cell Research and not the flagship of the same publisher, Nature.