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The GMO effect

Nobody wants them in their food, but half of consumers don’t even know why or what they are. According to a recent survey by research company The NPD Group, over half of consumers are concerned about GMOs, but when asked to define them, many are unclear. Consumers provided definitions such as “not natural,” “genetically altered” or “don’t know” in response to NPD’s request for a definition. While the number of consumers who are “very concerned” about GMOs has risen from 10 percent in 2002 to 20 percent in 2014, says NPD, 44 percent of respondents feel that GMOs provide some sort of benefit.

Here’s my take, admittedly simplistic: Those “villainous” GMOs—genetically modified organisms—have been in our food supply for decades. That’s how hybrid varieties of apples, sweet corn and other crops have been developed—by cross-breeding and agriculturally engineering a plant’s genes to produce a more disease-resistant or less perishable fruit or vegetable. In some cases, this genetic modification makes for a less appealing, less flavorful food. Tomatoes are a good example. And most of today’s supermarket tomatoes are a very good reason to buy the unadulterated heirloom varieties. But cross breeding and other agricultural advances have also made America’s food supply the cheapest and most plentiful in the world.

GMOs were in the news last week because Chipotle announced that it would be eliminating all genetically modified ingredients from its more than 1,800 restaurants, starting April 27. I expect “The Chipotle Effect” will soon sway other fast casuals in the healthy, natural-space to make a similar move—although few can do it like Chipotle does and keep a lid on menu prices.

Chipotle has vast resources. The chain worked with its farmer-suppliers to plant non-GMO varieties of corn for its tortillas—an undertaking that must have been subsidized by its deep pockets, although I have no proof. In the announcement, Chipotle claimed that the move to non-GMO ingredients did not result in significantly higher food costs, but I’m skeptical. The company is still sourcing meat and chicken from animals raised on GMO corn, gradually phasing into non-GMO feed. All this has to add up eventually and hit consumers in the wallet.

I’m all in favor of a purer food supply. Antibiotic-free chicken is very welcome on my plate. But until definitive answers come in on the effects of GMOs on our health, I’d rather have a fresh, tasty fast-casual lunch that won’t cost me more than $10.

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