Fear Mongering for Profit
Some companies exploit a fear of GMOs to engender trust and boost sales
By Leah Bakst
As a majority of adults in the U.S. believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are unsafe to eat, non-GMO foods are among the fastest-growing segments of the food industry. It is not surprising then that companies like Trader Joe’s and Chipotle, among others, are offering non-GMO options or even electing to go wholly GMO-free.
The issue with these decisions, though, is that they exploit the misguided fears of an ill-informed public. While often positioning themselves as companies with integrity, making choices for the benefit of consumer health, they are in actuality reinforcing and profiting off a serious misunderstanding of science.
Take Chipotle, a Mexican fast food chain whose tagline is “Food With Integrity,” as an example. On its website, Chipotle claims that “scientists are still studying the long-term implications of GMOs,” and have not yet reached consensus, citing a 2013 statement from the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER).
Both Chipotle and ENSSER neglect to acknowledge the broad consensus reached by the great majority of regulatory agencies and independent scientific bodies that have evaluated GMO safety. One example of such consensus comes from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In a statement on the labeling of GMOs, the AAAS board of directors minced no words: “the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”
Additionally, recent meta-analyses on the safety and impacts of GMOs support the claims of AAAS. In a survey of the thousands of studies on GMOs published in the last ten years, researchers “have not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops”. Moreover, while Chipotle claims “pesticide and herbicide use increased by more than 400 million pounds as a result of GMO cultivation,” a recent meta-analysis suggests that the use of GMOs has actually reduced pesticide use.
Even more galling is that Chipotle itself does not seem to subscribe to the beliefs it espouses. According to Chipotle’s website, it still serves meat and dairy products that come from animals that feed on GMO products and serves soft drinks made with GMO sweeteners as well. If GMOs were truly “unnatural” and their safety sincerely doubted, how could Chipotle support their inclusion in “food with integrity?” This suggests that Chipotle’s anti-GMO stance is likely a ploy to entice health-conscious consumers.
Another illuminating example of companies exploiting customer beliefs is called ‘greenwashing.’ This occurs when companies make a product more appealing by claiming that it is ‘green’ or environmentally friendly when it is not. This misleading or false advertising is actually illegal at the state and federal level, and companies like Enso Plastics and the Fiji Water Company are currently facing lawsuits regarding their unsubstantiated environmental claims.
This tactic of holding companies liable for their advertising could be a useful strategy against companies with anti-GMO claims as well. When companies advertise that their non-GMO products are better or healthier than GMO alternatives, they need to be able to substantiate those statements. Given the scientific consensus and myriad studies showing the equivalency, if not superiority, of GMO foods, it would likely be incredibly difficult to substantiate claims of non-GMO benefits.
Beyond the use of lawsuits to hold companies accountable, educating the public is of paramount importance. As the gap between public and scientific opinion widens, scientists must work to make sure the public understands the truth about GMO products, and that a large body of rigorous scientific work spanning decades supports these claims.
It is difficult to assert that companies should not make choices that will be most profitable, but misleading customers is unacceptable. When companies fail to deliver products that match customer desires and instead merely advertise them as such, their actions may actually be illegal. The scientific community must work to educate the public and hold companies accountable to ensure that a method that has been crucial for agriculture in the modern era continues to have a place at the table.
 Funk, C., & Rainie, L. (2015, July 1). Chapter 6: Public Opinion About Food. From pewinternet.org/2015/07/01/chapter-6-public-opinion-about-food/
 Bunge, J. (2015, February 2). Fields of Gold: GMO-Free Crops Prove Lucrative for Farmers. From wsj.com/articles/fields-of-gold-gmo-free-crops-prove-lucrative-for-farmers-1422909700
 G-M-Over It. (n.d.). From chipotle.com/GMO
 ENSSER. (2013) No scientific consensus on GMO safety.
 Nicolia, A., Manzo, A., Veronesi, F., & Rosellini, D. (2014). An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 31(1), 77-88.
 Klümper W, Qaim M (2014) A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111629.
 Washington Revised Code § 9.04.010
 Green Guides, 16 CFR, Part 260, Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 45.
 Kewalramani, D., & Sobelsohn, R. (2012, March 20). “Greenwashing”: Deceptive Business Claims of “Eco-Friendliness” From forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/03/20/greenwashing-deceptive-business-claims-of-eco-friendliness/
 Opinion Differences Between Public and Scientists. (2015, January 28). From pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/pi_2015-01-29_science-and-society-00-01/