April 3, 2014 Updated: April 3, 2014 at 7:45 pm
How common are genetically modified organisms in Colorado? And how do they impact our health and environment?
GMOs are plants with genes that have been altered to help them resist viruses, insects or certain herbicides such as glyphosate. The latter allows farmers to spray crops with Roundup - killing the weeds but not the crops. Unlike genes modified by selective breeding, GMO genes are inserted into plants in the lab, in combinations that wouldn't occur through traditional breeding or natural processes.
Although hybrid and organic crops are grown here, most Colorado crops are GMOs.
The kingpin is corn, a billion-dollar Colorado industry. Unlike the "sweet corn" sold in grocery stores, most corn is "field corn" for feeding animals or fueling cars. A fraction provides syrups, sugars and starches used for sweetening, thickening and stiffening products ranging from pasta to vitamins. Twinkies are the ultimate GMO product as they're made with corn starch, glucose and high fructose corn syrup.
Nearly half of Colorado's corn is brewed into ethanol. It's used as a pollution-inhibiting supplement in all gasoline and as the main ingredient in E85 fuel. Colorado imports corn to meet ethanol 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 used in products from baked items to sauces. This industry is efficient, with beet leftovers used to feed livestock. Soon sugar beets will make ethanol, too.
But do such GMOs pose health or environmental risks? A preponderance of epidemiological data suggests GMO foods and GMO-derived food products pose no health risks. They've been studied judiciously by many scientists and approved for human consumption by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Health Organization and United Nations.
Wildlife and ecosystem impacts are another matter entirely. GMO crops are nowhere near as environmentally friendly as organically grown crops because the widespread spraying of weed-killing herbicides exacerbates killing of beneficial critters. 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 North American monarch butterfly population, whose caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed, has been devastated.
Other GMOs have reduced demand for pesticides. Bt corn, for example, contains a gene that allows it to produce a protein that's toxic to certain insects, obviating the need to spray Bt corn crops with insecticides. This reduces the unintentional biodiversity losses typically associated with insecticide use and minimizes pesticide-application risks for farm workers.
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 benefits and drawbacks to using GMOs, and time will tell whether risks outweigh 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.
Hagadorn is a Denver Museum of Nature & Science scientist. Suggestions and comments are welcome at email@example.com.