Do you want (GMO) fries with that?


imgresIt’s a business cliche–the customer is always right–but unlike most cliches, this one is untrue.

I realized that years ago when I was talking with a top executive at Southwest Airlines. Southwest chooses its employees carefully. They are recruited, in large part, for their good character and values, as well as their friendly personalities and desire to serve. So when an airline passenger tangles with a Southwest gate agent or flight attendant, the assumption at headquarters is that the customer is probably wrong. Those customers who are particularly unpleasant or argumentative when dealing with Southwest are politely told that they will never be permitted to fly on the airline again.

I raise this because on the subject of genetically-engineered potatoes, McDonald’s, in all likelihood, will soon find itself caught in an awkward place–between the worries of some of its customers about GMOs and the desires of an important supplier to improve the health of the potato and reduce food waste. That is the topic of today’s column for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

“Do you want fries with that?” Not if they’re made from genetically engineered potatoes, say activists who oppose GMOs.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch is asking McDonald’s, the world’s biggest buyer of potatoes, not to source a genetically engineered spud that was developed by its biggest supplier, the J.R. Simplot Co.

“This potato is anything but healthy,” writes Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, in a letter (PDF) to Don Thompson, McDonald’s CEO. Altering the plant’s genes, she writes, could unintentionally affect other characteristics of the potato, “with potentially unforeseen consequences for human health”. The letter has been signed by 102,000 people.

Other NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, also oppose genetically engineered food. The Consumers Unionwants that food labeled. All of them argue that US government regulation of genetically modified crops is inadequate.

This is a problem for McDonald’s – and for anyone who believes that genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop yields, help solve environmental problems or deliver healthier foods.

The interesting thing about the new potato varieties developed by the J.R. Simplot Co., an Idaho-based potato processing giant, is that they are engineered to deliver consumer and environmental benefits, as my story goes on to explain. They are designed to lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. And they reduce black spots from bruising, which means fewer potatoes have to be thrown away. Unlike some other GMO crops, which primarily benefitted farmers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these will benefit people who choose to eat the fries at Mickey D’s.

The GMO debate is complicated, although rarely is it presented that way. See, for example, this page on the Organic Consumer Assn. website, blasting Monsanto with ridiculous headlines like “Monsanto’s GE Seeds Pushing US Agriculture into Bankruptcy.” That will come as a surprise to USDA, which says that the US agriculture sector will enjoy record high income of  $120 billion this year. But I digress. Few people truly understand the science of biotechnology. I certainly don’t. So if we take sides, we do so based mostly based on the opinions of others who we trust. As my story says, the debate

gets emotional very quickly and often comes down to questions of trust. Here the anti-GMO forces have an advantage. They can position themselves as consumer advocates – public interest groups, if you will. By comparison, the companies that favor GMOs are seen as self-interested and lacking credibility. Government regulators also, generally, don’t inspire trust.

No wonder anti-GMO sentiments seem be growing. It’s easy for NGOs to stir up fear, and the record of government regulators–whether we’re talking about USDA, the FDA or the SEC–doesn’t inspire confidence. We should approach new GMO crops with humility and caution, particularly when considering their environmental impact. Like any technology, genetic engineering comes with risks as well as benefits.

But let’s not forget that Americans eat genetically engineered food every day, with no adverse health effects that can be attributed to GMO foods. There’s a broad consensus among mainstream scientists that the GMO crops now on the market are safe to eat.

Consumers may be fearful of GMOs, but that doesn’t make them right.



  1. Brett says

    Part of the problem is that food is already super-cheap for anyone who isn’t poor in this country, with or without genetic modification due to the productivity of our agriculture system. It means the gains to consumers from GM food don’t appear as obvious as they would if they were leading to major price drops in agriculture, and they’re more amenable to “quality of life” arguments.

  2. Ed Reid says

    This would appear to create a wonderful potential opportunity for a new fast food competitor to enter the market. The new venture could feature exclusively “free range” meats, organically grown vegetables and salads, non-GMO buns, etc. The beverage menu could offer un-carbonated drinks, free of high fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings and flavorings.

    This new competitor could also take a leadership position regarding employee wages in the industry, offering starting wages of $15 per hour, or perhaps even a “living wage”.

    The potential for product and service differentiation is awe inspiring.

  3. Marc Gunther says

    Brett, that’s a great point. Govt subsidies distort the prices of food, so the beneficial effects of higher yields are not going to be felt by consumers.

    Ed, I know you are being sarcastic here but isn’t this what Starbucks has done (albeit in a more limited way) to take market share away from the cheap commodity coffee at McDonald’s, 7-11 or the local diner?

    • Bill Kramer says

      Mark/Ed: Starbucks is ‘ethical’ and ‘green’ but not yet so much in relation to its food products. Perhaps a more directly analogous example would be Chipotle, which now has over 1500 locations. Ironically, McDonald’s was a major investor from 1998-2006, during which time the chain grew enormously and went public. McDonald’s apparently decided that a ‘natural food’ focused chain like Chipotle was not in their long-term business plan. Another example of wholesome, organic fast food is SweetGreen, in which Steve Case’s Revolution investment firm has just made a $22M bet.

    • Ed Reid says


      OK, the sarcasm might have gone beyond “dripping”. 😉

      I’m sure you have noted that Starbucks coffee is also far more expensive than the coffee at Micky D’s. I wonder how much Micky D’s has noticed the reduction in coffee sales. I also wonder what would happen to Micky D’s market if they transitioned to the model I described above. My guess is they would lose substantial share because of the higher prices.

  4. Keith Grover says

    Since potatoes are grown from cuttings, they are in essence generational clones. This has created the perception that potatoes would never be subject GMO processes since there is no “seed” to modify. If a potato plant is allowed to go to seed, the offspring won’t be beautiful russet burbanks; the offspring will represent the full genetic diversity of the potato family.

    As a consumer, I certainly would prefer Simplot or McCain’s to follow the selective breeding process that led to the varieties we enjoy today. I also believe consumers should be made aware when their purchased products include GMO content. Consumer choice would then direct the market.

  5. says

    The line of rhetoric ‘most scientists think…’ is one politicans love – …based on what??? is what a scientist would ask next … Evidence of what??? …Social, environmental, personal, culinary, etc….are just a few of the areas of evidence … questions of evidence of what we take for evidence aside …what I find the most concerning about GE rhetoric is the idea that ‘scientists’ keep saying its going to save the world from hunger, malnutrition, and ecological degradation….

  6. Lizzie Needham says

    Hi Marc,

    Nice article. I like how your GMO articles present GMOs in an unbiased and logical way. A little off topic, but I am wondering if you have come across any information with regards to GMO impacts on pollinators. I think that GMO discussions tend to get too caught up in the human health aspect and that it is also important to think about how GMOS impact other species like bees. Given that we rely on pollinators for 2/3 of our crops, this is an issue we (or any major business in the food industry) need to think about very carefully. Whether GMOs negatively impact pollinators or not, it is definitely a subject to address. Perhaps you will come across this topic at a later date and have some useful information for your blog readers!



  7. L. Langberg says

    The antis will just have to move the goal posts yet again.

    I see the argument all the time that there is no need for GMO crops, all “we” have to do for food production to keep up with population growth until 2020, is to stop waisting so much food. This, and other initiatives like it is directed right at minimizing waste, but for some reason I doubt anti GMOers will appreciate it.

  8. Sick because of agrochemicals in my food says

    Mr gunter is obviously being paid for by the industry, the rest of us have access to information and are becoming informed. For those that are interested in a summary of scientific studies telling us the contrary to what the industry, and mr gunter are telling us, download the report. GMO myths and truth

    Also, the problem we have a clearer understanding on is glyphosate – this is the culprit behind every health ailment you can possibly think of. GM seeds are often made to be roundup (herbicide) resistant, which means that the gm seeds are sprayed excessively with this poison. Research roundup!!!

  9. Sick because of agrochemicals in my food says

    Mr gunter why don’t you look at why there are nearly 300k persons on the March against Monsanto facebook page and that the twitter ratio under ‘monsanto’ gets dozens of messages from concerned consumers, farmers, activists, scientists, for every 1 corporate nonsense. This is because of valid concern. The corruption in the ag industry and gov in the US would make the kremlin jealous. I urge everyone to educate themselves on these issues – why the rates of intestinal problems, allergies, cancers, etc. is skyrocketing. Read about glyphosate. Read about the revolving doors between Monsanto and the US government. And read about why over 60 COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD ARE BANNING GMOs and businesses are also moving towards transparency, or banning gmos. over 90% of Americans want GMOs labelled!!


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