The fallout from Chipotle’s announcement that they’ve eliminated GMOs from their menu certainly created a buzz – but not the kind of buzz that Chipotle hoped for!
There’s been so much backlash against Chipotle for engaging in fear-based marketing it’s hard to keep track of all the outlets and individuals decrying their stance. Many compilation articles have sprung up, like this particularly good one from a young farmer who shared summaries and links to ~20 notable articles. The list includes all manner of media outlets, such as science (Gizmodo, Live Science), health (Bloomberg Health), and mainstream (WSJ, NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, NPR, TIME).
And, while Chipotle is the example du jour, they’re not the first company, and won’t be the last, to try to profit off consumer confusion about GMOs…
There’s no doubting that labels like “Non-GMO Project Verified” have been taking off over the past few years, so is it right to blame companies who want to take advantage of this trend? After all, the customer is always right, right?? Well, what if the average customer is getting their guidance on the safety and sustainability of biotech foods from the very companies that are trying to profit from fear of them?
The International Food Information Council found that the majority of consumers (58%) said they know only “a little” or “nothing at all” about biotechnology, and just 11% said they know “a lot”. So while the customer may always be right about their preferences, fear-based marketing about GMOs isn’t necessarily giving customers what they want, it’s essentially telling them they shouldn’t eat biotech foods. Many may think, “Why would they be boasting about removing GMOs unless GMOs are bad?”
A much-discussed Pew poll that examined gaps in the positions between scientists and consumers about science-based topics found that no issue was more polarizing than the perceived safety of biotech foods. Instead of helping to bridge that gap by educating consumers, anti-GMO differentiation strategies seek to deepen the gap, and their profits along with it.
As for why this is a real problem, there’s perhaps no better summation than an article by Marc Brazeau. He also does an excellent job examining why the Chipotle backlash was so fierce compared to similar announcements.
Per Brazeau, the three chief reasons the media and other have taken issue with Chipotle’s stance:
A) There’s no credible health or safety reason to avoid biotech foods.
B) The move is hypocritical and opportunistic, rather than in the best interest of consumers.
C) Removing biotech foods means avoiding crops that require less pesticide usage; a step backwards for sustainability.
The longer companies try to profit off confusion and fear rather than embracing evidence that demonstrates biotechnology is the best choice for farmers, consumers and the environment, the more risk they’ll put themselves in. Education about biotech foods is increasing and, along with the number of biotech foods with tangible benefits for consumers and farmers, will continue to do so. We suspect customers from Chipotle and others will remember who was actually on their side, and who postured instead for their pocketbook’s sake…