I recently learned that my kids’ favorite cereal, Cheerios, is full of GMO ingredients. Learning this made me wonder how common genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are in Colorado. To what degree do they impact our health and environment?
Like most technological innovations, GMOs were developed to solve a problem, improve our lives and make money. But many innovations that are heralded as societal boons eventually have unintended negative consequences as we learn more about them or as their usage becomes widespread.
GMOs are plants whose genes have been altered. People have been altering genes for millennia by selective breeding—whether they’re creating rose hybrids or dog breeds. The main difference with GMOs is that genes are inserted into plants in the lab, in combinations that wouldn’t occur through traditional breeding or natural evolutionary processes. For example, papaya, zucchini and yellow summer squash have genes that were inserted to help the plants resist viruses, and cotton’s genetic modifications help it resist insects. Alfalfa, sugar beet, canola, and soybean genes have been changed so they can resist certain herbicides. This allows farmers to spray the crops with glyphosate (i.e., Roundup)—which kills the weeds but not the crop.
Although hybrid and organic crops are grown here, the vast majority of Colorado crops are GMOs.
The kingpin of Colorado crops is corn—a billion-dollar industry. Unlike “sweet corn” sold in the grocery store, most Colorado corn is “field corn” for feeding animals or fueling cars. A fraction of our corn provides syrups, sugars and starches used for sweetening, thickening and stiffening food products ranging from pasta to vitamins. Twinkies are the ultimate byproduct of GMO corn—they’re made with cornstarch, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, and a bunch of other GMO ingredients that I can’t pronounce.
Nearly half of Colorado’s corn is brewed into a special moonshine—ethanol. This alcohol is used as a pollution-inhibiting supplement in all gasoline and as the main ingredient in E85 fuel. Ethanol production is so profitable in Colorado that we import corn to keep up with demand
Sugar beets are Colorado’s coolest and least-known GMO. Grown on the eastern plains, these beets look like ancient subterranean footballs. Their pulp becomes table sugar, which is later mixed into all sorts of products—from baked items to sauces. This hundred-million-dollar industry is efficient—sugar beet leftovers are used to feed cattle and other livestock. Soon sugar beets will be used to make ethanol, too.
But do such GMOs pose health or environmental risks? A preponderance of epidemiological data suggests that GMO foods and GMO-derived food products pose no health risks. They have been studied judiciously by many scientists, and approved for human consumption by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Health Organization and United Nations.
Yet for wildlife and ecosystems, the impact of GMOs is another matter entirely. GMO crops are nowhere near as environmentally friendly as organically grown crops, because the widespread spraying of weed-killing herbicides like Roundup exacerbates killing of beneficial insects, frogs, birds and worms. The net result is reduced animal and plant diversity, battered ecosystems and unintended side effects. For example, GMO agriculture has necessitated a massive increase in spraying of Roundup to kill milkweed. But so much milkweed has been destroyed that the entire North American monarch butterfly population, whose caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed, has been catastrophically devastated.
Other GMOs, however, have reduced demand for pesticides. Bt corn, for example, contains a gene that allows it to produce a protein that is toxic to certain insects, obviating the need to spray Bt corn crops with insecticides. This in turn reduces the unintentional biodiversity losses typically associated with insecticide use and minimizes pesticide-application risks for farmworkers.
So what’s the future of GMOs? More will come, including rice, potatoes, and one that could be a boon to Colorado—drought-tolerant wheat.
There are some benefits and drawback to using GMOs, and time will tell whether the risks outweigh the rewards. But the genie is out of the bottle. GMOs are all around us – in our food, on our land and in our cars. Like Twinkies, they’re here to stay.
James W. Hagadorn, PhD, is a scientist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Suggestions and comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.