Though folks in the ag media have been expressing outrage concerning the questionable marketing practices from fast food giant Chipotle for years, the restaurant chain’s misleading tactics have seemingly gone unnoticed (and have even been celebrated) by most everyone else. That changed in April, though, when Chipotle announced that it was removing all foods containing genetically modified ingredients from its menu — the first major restaurant chain to do this.
Since the announcement, the formerly beloved burritos have been blasted around the country on the air, on the Internet and in newsprint. A flood of information came out about the incredible hypocrisy of Chipotle’s “food with integrity” campaign that disregards an overwhelming scientific consensus, basic, well-founded nutritional facts, honesty, and common sense. The menu’s high caloric content, lofty sodium levels and sugary sweet beverages have well-known, scientifically proven ill effects if consumed in quantity, yet the restaurant chain claims that it offers a healthy eating choice because it is removing genetically modified ingredients from the menu. GMOs have no proven health effects whatsoever after billions of meals safely consumed. Chipotle has also faced criticism for not really going GMO-free by continuing to serve soft drinks with corn syrup made with GMO corn and meat from livestock fed GMO corn.
Agricultural organizations, of course, also had plenty to say about the announcement. American Soybean Association (ASA) president Wade Cowan, a farmer from Brownfield, Texas, pointed out the continuing frustration with the misinformation about agricultural biotechnology.
“Farmers are no strangers to the heated discussion of GMOs and biotechnology. We recognize that there are passionate viewpoints on both sides, and we respectfully disagree with those who choose to dispute the scientific consensus on the safety of these agricultural innovations. What is different about Chipotle’s announcement this week is that it smacks of a willful subversion of science, all in the name of selling burritos,” Cowan said. “Chipotle contends that more study is needed on GMOs, even though they are among the most studied and tested food products in the world, and have been since their introduction almost 20 years ago — all without a single incidence of harm to humans, plants or animals. Think about that for a minute: a planet’s worth of meals over two decades means literally trillions of servings without one adverse occurrence. Chipotle, however, bypasses the overwhelming scientific consensus and places long-debunked safety concerns first and foremost in its new effort. For this, the restaurant has been taken to task by viewpoints ranging from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to media outlets like National Public Radio and the Washington Post — voices that certainly couldn’t be mistaken as ‘shills’ for big agriculture.
“We might suggest a better approach: abandon the scare tactics and join us in our effort to provide clarity to this conversation. Soybean farmers are ready and willing to come to the table and help consumers find out more about what we do and why we use these products. Just like soybean farmers, Chipotle and indeed all links in the farm-to-fork supply chain have a huge opportunity to help Americans discover more about their food. This comes, however, with the responsibility to do so in an ethical and honest manner.”
The tactics at Chipotle, though aggravating, are but a miniscule part of the ongoing onslaught of marketing efforts that seek to promote products and ideologies by tearing others down using information not based upon reality. These tactics have been taking place for years, and not just in the realm of restaurants. I have long been frustrated when small, specialty farmers (most notably organic) feel the need to promote their products at the expense of others. Why? If your product is high quality and raised in the way that you feel best, it should be able to stand upon its own merits and not be marketed at the expense of other types of agricultural production.
I have no problems with organic food production (or Chipotle’s menu for that matter). Organic production is an excellent and viable way to produce and market food to meet a clear demand that the farm owner sees as the best way to run a productive and economically viable farm business. My concern lies with the all-too-common attacks on other forms of agriculture for the sake of marketing.
For this reason, I was very glad to recently talk with Kurt Bench — a very hard working almost-organic farmer dedicated to his craft and methods of agricultural production. He had this to say in the interview:
“We are all farmers. Why can’t we all just get along and help each other out? There are so few of us out there anymore we shouldn’t be arguing. We are all farmers in the end who are producing food. Arguing about how to do things doesn’t get us any further ahead. There is a spot for everyone out there and we have found our niche.”
Ahhhhh — this is so refreshing. Make no mistake, Bench does have clear opinions on the reasons he farms the way he does, and they are different from many of the larger farms around him. He does not seem to think, though, that his way is the only way, just the best way for his family on his farm. In our conversation, and previous conversations I have had with him, there was no underlying hate, no criticism of “Big Ag” as a part of the farm’s marketing plan and no “my way is superior to yours because of …” He allows his farm practices and products to simply showcase themselves.
Chipotle (and probably most of us) can learn something from this sentiment.