GMO debate shows big opinion gap between scientists, public over safety

A big U.S. restaurant chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, has garnered a lot of press over its recent move to go GMO-free. It seems to be riding a public mistrust of GMO food safety — a mistrust that most scientists don't share.

Chipotle goes non-GMO, Monsanto tries to change its ways

Protesters in the 'March Against Monsanto' in Toronto, May 24, 2014, express concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A major restaurant chain eliminating foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was sure to be controversial.

Chipotle Mexican Grill continues to get pilloried in mainstream and social media, accused of shrugging off the views of most scientists who say that foods that contain GMOs are generally safe to eat.

But Chiplotle's move also got support, notably in some business publications.

The Colorado-headquartered chain, which has over 1,800 locations, including some in Canada and other countries, has been something of a Wall Street darling.

Now the chain, which has "food with integrity" as its motto, says it will no longer serve dishes made from GMO foods. (The policy doesn't apply to drinks, due to the sweetener in soft drinks which is made from GMO-corn.) In 2013, Chipotle became the first restaurant chain to disclose to its customers which menu items contained GMOs. 

The popular investor website Motley Fool, after taking note of the media attacks on Chipotle, following their GMO-free announcement on April 27, advised, "regardless of what side you're on, as an investor, you have to like Chipotle Mexican Grill's decision to go GMO-free for one very good reason: it's a smart business decision."

Business news icon Bloomberg characterized it as an unprecedented move "that may give it a marketing edge over fast-food rivals." 

Part of a trend

That's U.S. President Barack Obama on his way to have lunch at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2014. Chipotle's also popular with Wall Street, admired for how it has successfully positioned itself as the healthy-food choice among the big chains. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Kelly Weikel, the director of consumer insights at market research firm Technomic, says this move is part of a trend by U.S. restaurant chains trying to appeal to consumers with perceived healthier ingredients. But she says Chipotle is the chain best-known for doing so, despite selling food that Weikel calls "not really very healthy," considering its abundance of salt, calories and fat.

So Weikel sees this latest move as, in part, staying ahead of the competition. "They have niche ownership of that healthy-food area so they really want to keep it and they're defending it by including the GMO" policy.

She says to expect more healthy-food initiatives in the food service sector. And transparency will be an increasingly important part of that trend.

Technomic's latest Canadian Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report says foods described as "GMO-free may help appeal to consumers and drive incremental purchases." Sixty-two per cent of Canadians say they are more likely to purchase a food described as GMO-free, with 24 per cent willing to pay more.

Scientists, public out of sync

To address what they perceive as the public's misperception of science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in collaboration with Pew Research conducted two surveys in the U.S., one of AAAS scientists and one of the general public.

One question asked whether they "think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods." Of the scientists polled, 88 per cent chose "generally safe," but only 37 per cent of the public said the same thing.

The safety of eating GM-foods had the largest gap of any issue.

With some U.S. states enacting laws and some holding referendums to make GMO labelling mandatory, some members of Congress introduced a bill on March 25, 2015, designed to ensure the food industry does not have to tell consumers if a product contains GMOs. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

Cary Funk, who headed up the study team for Pew Research, points to the results of another question as suggesting a reason the GMO question had the largest gap in the two polls.

When the public was asked whether "scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops," only 28 per cent of those polled said scientists do have a clear understanding. What was striking for Funk was "how uniform opinion is among sub-groups," reflecting broad-ranging skepticism.

Now, when it comes to GMOs, it's worth remembering not to take everything at face value. The AAAS had come out in support of GMO foods. For example, during a referendum in California in 2012, on labelling GMO-foods, the AAAS issued a controversial statement that concluded,  "Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers."

And remember that Motley Fool endorsement of Chipotle's GMO move? The Motley Fool owns shares in the company.

Safety of eating GMOs not the key issue

For many GMO critics, the safety of eating GMOs is not at the top of their concerns.

In fact, Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety (CFS) in Washington, says an emphasis on the food-safety issue has harmed the debate on GMOs. He argues "the overall framework of understanding the value or risk to society of genetic engineering goes way beyond the food safety risk."

The CFS is one of the leading anti-GMO organizations in the U.S.

If his concerns — sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, the need for better regulation, labelling of GMOs, public domain technology versus patented  — were met, he's "OK with engineered traits, and some of them could be useful."

Greenhouses sit atop a research building at Monsanto's facilities in St. Louis, Missouri. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

But, he adds, "other neglected agricultural methods like breeding and ecological farming are cheaper and more effective than genetic engineering."

Gurian-Sherman also says that he thinks the public is justified in telling pollsters that scientists don't really have a clear understanding of GMOs, given the uncertainties that accompany it, like any new technology. 

Compare his list to the three reasons Chipotle gives for its GMO-free policy: the long term implications of GMOs are still under study; "the cultivation of GMOs can damage the environment;" and evidence of both harm to beneficial insect populations and the creation of herbicide-resistant superweeds.

One non-browning apple could spoil the bunch

And for fruit growers' groups who have come out against the non-browning apple, one of the latest genetically modified foods to win approval, their concern is not over safety but whether one non-browning apple could spoil the bunch.

They fear that with a public concerned about GMOs, a GM-apple could lead some people to avoid any apple that isn't labelled GMO-free.

Growers in Quebec and B.C. sponsored a 2012 poll that found 69 per cent of Canadians opposed to approval of the non-browning GM-apple.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph, speaks at a conference in Dubai, on Nov. 10, 2014. He's fine with eating foods containing GMOs but wants those foods to be labelled, which he says would help the industry win over the public. (Brian Sterling)

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at the University of Guelph's Food Institute (but currently at the University of Innsbruck in Austria), says the non-browning apple presents an opportunity for the food industry.

Unlike most of the GMOs, the apple has a trait that consumers can see and understand and appreciate, he says. Soon, the prepared salads with apple they buy at the supermarket may not need special treatment to prevent browning, and the pre-sliced apples they get from fast food restaurants won't always have an edible film coating.

And he notes that unlike the "monster" companies usually behind GMOs, the apple is the work of a small, formerly Canadian, now American-owned, firm. He says this period before the launch provides an opportunity for the company and the industry to make their case and "explain what the benefits of GMOs are, at home."

Charlebois points to several factors that may account for the divergent views of the public and scientists on GMOs: a poor PR strategy by the industry, inaccurate information from anti-GMO groups, and a lack of transparency in the approval process.

One step that could help overcome the transparency and education issues in North America, he argues, would be the labelling of foods containing GMOs.

A U.S. poll in December found two-thirds of Americans want mandatory labelling of foods containing GMOs, with just seven per cent opposed to the labelling. GMO labels are not mandatory in Canada or in the U.S.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. government has in the works, a voluntary program (which producers will pay for) that certifies and labels foods that do not contain GMOs.

Monsanto tries to change its ways

Chelsea Robinson of Monsanto answers questions for Mboswobeni Mulugana at the GMO Answers booth at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, on March 16, 2015. GMO Answers, a group funded by companies, including Monsanto, wants to improve the public's perception of genetically modified food. (Erich Schlegel/Associated Press)

Charlebois and a co-author have a study in the works on Monsanto, the biggest company in the GMO field. Monsanto is supporting their research.

Monsanto is the number one target for the anti-GMO movement. On May 23, they will "once again, unite to March Against Monsanto." Events in 40 communities in Canada are listed.

Charlebois wants to "understand why Monsanto became the most hated company in the world," something Monsanto admits.

On the PR front, Monsanto concedes it miscalculated. Charlebois says it was due to blind enthusiasm. He says that instead of educating the public, they annoyed a lot of consumers.

"Now they have to manage fears instead of managing facts." Charlebois says that when they interviewed employees at Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters, some were actually crying when they spoke about what their family members said about Monsanto.

Charlebois says Monsanto has now moved in another direction, becoming more transparent, trying to understand and engage consumers. Their CEO, Hugh Grant, told Charlebois that now anyone at Monsanto is allowed to talk to the media.

Charlebois hopes those changes will lead to less divergent views on GMOs between the public and scientists.

The Pew/AAAS poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the AAAS. The survey of the general public was conducted by landline and cellular telephone August 15-25, 2014 with a representative sample of 2,002 U.S. adults. It has a  +/- 3.1 percentage point margin of error. The survey of scientists was conducted online from Sept. 11 to Oct. 13, 2014 and is based on a representative sample of 3,748 U.S.-based members of AAAS, with a +/- margin of error of 1.7 percentage points. 

The Canadian poll on the GM-apple was conducted by Leger Research for the Fédération des producteurs de pommes du Québec and the B.C. Fruit Growers Association. 1,501 Canadian adults were surveyed online from June 26-29, 2012.

The poll on labelling was conducted online Dec. 4-8, 2014 by Associated Press-GfK with 1,010 adults in the U.S. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points.

The companies say their samples for the public opinion polls were random and representative.

PHOTOS | Global march against Monsanto, 2015


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