General Mills' decision to stop using genetically modified organisms to make Cheerios (and, more to the point, its decision to brag about it on cereal boxes) was relatively easy: there's no such thing as genetically modified oats.
But Cheerios are a special case. So many other cereals are made with corn or contain sugar that it would be impossible, or at least cost-prohibitive, for most of them to make a similar move. About 80 percent of all U.S. corn is genetically modified. Even other variants of Cheerios can’t easily be changed. The Honey Nut variety so beloved by Omar Little on The Wire contain both corn and sugar, so it can’t bear the label.
So, why are there no GMO oats? There are a bunch of reasons, but the main one is, not surprisingly, money.
So, why are there no GMO oats? There are a bunch of reasons, but the main one is, not surprisingly, money. There simply aren’t enough oat farmers in the world, or enough oats grown, to create sufficient demand to justify the incredibly expensive research that goes into developing genetically modified seeds. “There’s no money and no desire” for such research, says Ron Barnett, an oat breeder and professor emeritus of agronomy at the University of Florida.
The decisions for which crops are targeted for GMO research are based on economic and political decisions that were made well before the first GMO crops were even conceived of. “In the United States, corn and soybeans are the drivers” of GMO product development, Barnett says. That’s because the markets for those crops were already dominant when genetic modification started taking off. “Oats,” comparatively speaking, “are a minor crop,” he adds.
In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be the case. Oats are the most nutritious of the big grains. They’re loaded with protein, with a range of that nutrient of between 12 percent and 24 percent, similar to soybeans. The World Health Organization says they’re about as good a source of protein as meat, milk and eggs. More famously, oats are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease. There was a demand spurt in the late 1980s when research into this connection was published, and an even bigger one a decade later after the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines for food marketers who want to make heart-health claims for oats (a product must contain at least 0.75 grams of soluble fiber per serving.) General Mills made hay of such claims ever since in selling Cheerios.
The average revenue per acre of corn in 2012 was $1,073. For soybeans, it was $596. For oats, it was a mere $245.
Nevertheless, demand for oats has been falling for nearly a century, ever since mechanized equipment started taking over for horses on farms and roads. In fact, global acreage devoted to oats has fallen by 58 percent just in the past decade, according to General Mills. That’s in part because oats aren’t a particularly efficient or profitable crop. It takes more seed to produce an acre of oats than it does to produce an acre of other major crops, like corn. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the average revenue per acre of corn in 2012 was $1,073. For soybeans, it was $596. For oats, it was a mere $245.
That’s just the kind of problem that could conceivably be solved by genetic engineering aimed at increasing yields. Other problems include “crown rust,” a fungus that afflicts oats particularly in wetter climates. Another affliction: yellow dwarf virus, which is spread by aphids. Further, engineered oats could help make them heartier and expand growing areas for winter oats further north.
But that brings up another reason for the lack of research into genetic modification: oats are pretty hearty as it is, compared to other crops. They dominate fields and keep weeds out, and they generally need less herbicides and pesticides than other similar grains.
And there’s another barrier: the oat genome itself. Commercial oats contain six chromosomes in their genomes, making them particularly difficult — and expensive — to modify. “The oat genome is ginormous,” said Eric Jackson, then a USDA researcher, speaking in 2010 to the Prairie Oat Growers Association conference in Saskatchewan. He also said: “Corn is in everything” while soybeans “want to be everything except what it is.” The humble oat is thus left out in the cold when it comes to research.
Jackson, who didn’t respond to a request for an interview, now works for General Mills. He likely wouldn’t today repeat his 2010 declaration about the market for oats. “What we’ve been doing the last 30 years,” said Jackson then, “is managing our decline.”