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GMOs Are Becoming A Proxy For Bigger Concerns About The Food System

Pop indie group Small Pools played at the Chipotle Cultivate Festival, held in Kansas City on July 18.
Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media
Pop indie group Small Pools played at the Chipotle Cultivate Festival, held in Kansas City on July 18.

Waiting in line for an exhibit at the Chipotle Cultivate Festival on factory farming. Festival goers had to visit four such exhibits to get a free burrito.
Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media
Waiting in line for an exhibit at the Chipotle Cultivate Festival on factory farming. Festival goers had to visit four such exhibits to get a free burrito.

Attendees of the Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Kansas City, Mo., on July 18 could vote on their opinions about genetically modified organisms after going through an exhibit.
Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media
Attendees of the Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Kansas City, Mo., on July 18 could vote on their opinions about genetically modified organisms after going through an exhibit.

The Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Kansas City on July 18 had it all: an indie pop band on stage, long lines at the beer booths. It was like a Grateful Dead concert, only with free burritos.

But this and the three other Chipotle Cultivate events held across the country this summer were more than just a classic summertime music festival. Billed as offering "food, ideas and music," the festival offers a chance to "learn a free burrito," by going through four exhibits.

Chipotle, the chain whose slogan is "food with integrity," was the first national restaurant chain to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from most of its menu. Now, the company is going a step further: using its anti-GMO stance as a marketing opportunity.

Alex Jessee, a young mother, went through the "GMO Experience," one of the four exhibits. She says she learned from it "that these GMOs could be harmful to us, the environment, but they don't necessarily have to tell us that we're eating them. Which isn't very cool."

That perspective dovetails nicely with Chipotle's marketing plan. And it's the side more consumers are choosing, too: Surveys show the majority of consumers — as much as 93 percent, according to a New York Times poll — want their food labeled with GMO information. That's even though the world's leading scientists say GMOs are safe.

"The marketplace is trying to sell what they believe consumers want. But what they want [non-GMO food] is already regulated [as organic food]," says Cathy Calfo, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers.

She points to what a lot of people don't know: Organics are free of GMOs and there's already a USDA-certified label that consumers can seek.

"It's almost like the era of Mad Men where the slick marketers and the big money could convince people that things that weren't good for them were good for them," Calfo says.

CCFO, in a bit of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," recently launched another label, "Non-GMO & More," which the group hopes will help educate consumers about the all that organics offer.

GMO has become a buzzword, says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group, which does research for food companies. Consumers' desire for them falls under what the industry calls the "health halo" – the perception that a food is healthy, she says.

"When we talk about what's the No. 1 trend or long-term change in what's going on in food culture today, we found over the years that consumers are really looking for products that appear or perceive to be fresh, real and less processed," she says.

The fight over food containing genetically modified ingredients has also become a political rallying cry. The U.S. House passed a bill limiting labels for GMO food and a companion bill is expected to be introduced on the Senate side this fall.

"There is a lot of confusion and it's not accidental that there's confusion," says U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, who sponsored the recently passed bill that bars states from passing laws that require GMO labels and instead offers a voluntary federal system.

"There is a group of folks out there who have been trying to tell consumers these foods were unsafe for a long time," Pompeo said. "They've had massive media campaigns to do that. It's been in their own economic self-interest to do that."

In fact, both sides of the GMO labeling debate have economic interests, says Carmen Bain, an associate sociology professor at Iowa State University who has been studying the issue.

"Both sides, all sides, however you like to think about it, have political and economic interests," she says. "They have skin in the game."

Genetically modified organisms were commercialized two decades ago. Most processed foods contain those ingredients, especially anything with corn, soybeans or sugar beets.

But the issue became a popular political cause a few years ago, with states lining up to pass laws that would require the labels. Several failed at the ballot box. Vermont, however, became the first state in the country to pass a bill and it will go into effect next July.

That's exactly what Pompeo's bill is aimed at: trying to pre-empt the state laws and make labeling GMOs voluntary. Monsanto, the global biotech giant, along with big food and beverage companies like Pepsico and Kraft spent millions on lobbying the anti-labeling bill, as the companies fear the labels could keep hurt profits.

Those interests also contributed more than three times in campaign donations to lawmakers than the other side, according to Maplight, which tracks money in politics. Those opposing the bill included environmental, organic and health interests.

Still, the issue isn't really about GMOs, Bain says. Her research shows that GMO labeling has become what social scientists call a "wicked problem," one that is inherently contradictory and can't be solved through scientific fact.

"GMOs is really a proxy for many of the broader social and economic and political concerns that they have, in particular about the agri-food system," Bain says, adding that the concerns include corporate control and industrial-sized food production.

Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

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