by Michael Gerson, Washington Post
Pass any Chipotle these days and you will see signs claiming credit for removing ingredients that contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from the menu. It is the first big chain to do so, and probably not the last. The business press has pronounced it “a savvy move to impress millennials” and a “bet on the younger generations in America.”
This milestone in the history of fast-food scruples (and of advertising) is also a noteworthy cultural development: the systematic incorporation of anti-scientific attitudes into corporate branding strategies. There is no credible evidence that ingesting a plant that has been swiftly genetically modified in a lab has a different health outcome than ingesting a plant that has been slowly genetically modified through selective breeding. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat. This scientific consensus is at least as strong as the one on human-caused climate change.
Yet Whole Foods promises “full GMO transparency” by 2018. Its website emphasizes “your right to know.” But you will search it in vain for any explanation of how or why GMOs are harmful, because an actual assertion would not withstand scrutiny. Chipotle’s Co-CEO Steve Ells set out his rationale this way: “They say these ingredients are safe, but I think we all know we’d rather have food that doesn’t contain them.”
“They” say. “We” know. It brought to mind an argument made by Dan Kahan of Yale in the journal Nature concerning global warming. If you are, say, a Republican in the Deep South, your capacity to confront global climate disruption directly is vanishingly small (assuming you think it is a problem). And the cost of bucking your neighbors on the issue may be considerable. They are likely to view you as an oddity or a turncoat, and to question your judgment on other matters. So the decision to conform to the views of your cultural group or team, while not heroic, is not irrational. (The same argument could be made about the team composed of enlightened corporate CEOs.)
“The trouble starts,” says Kahan, “when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that, ‘If you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them.’ ” This use of scientific opinion as a cultural signifier is evident in the vaccination debate. A certain kind of trendy parent believes that everything natural is preferable, forgetting that natural levels of mortality from childhood diseases are high. It is the same ideological impulse — the belief that nature is pure and artifice is unwholesome — that causes corporate leaders to spout pseudoscientific nonsense about GMOs.
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