OMG These GMOs

photo by Jane
photo by Jane

For anyone who works in hospitality or hospitality-related fields, the debate about Genetic Engineering (GE), specifically Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is likely at the center of many a conversation; both with colleagues and customers. The debate is also at the center of many food justice forums, and no matter what side of the debate one’s loyalties rest, one thing is certain: there are extremely intelligent people with solid arguments on both sides. It is an enormously complicated issue and exceptionally easy to get bogged down in the mire of informational muck, so for the sake of brevity and relativity to spirits, this article aims to address food-grade, GMO-corn-based ethanol.

According to the USDA, about 88% of all corn grown currently in the United States is GMO. It is genetically modified for two primary reasons: 1) for herbicide resistance (resistant to herbicides like Roundup) and 2) as a pesticide, such as with Bt corn, which is genetically engineered to carry a gene from the soil: bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This bacterium produces proteins that are toxic to certain pests such as caterpillars, mosquitos and the corn rootworm, but are said not to effect humans and other mammals. Bt corn’s effects on the environment are relatively minimal, as the toxin is just a concentration of naturally occurring bacteria.

On the fauna front, GE Roundup-resistant seeds allow the plants they produce to survive when sprayed directly with the herbicide Roundup, while everything around them dies. When used as directed, cycled correctly and applied sparingly, this process is extremely effective and the detrimental side effects are minimal. As with any process involving human interaction, however, the biggest problems come into play surrounding human error. Farmers often spray much more than is needed, and that excess winds up with us. Glyphosate has been found in mothers’ breast milk, as well as most metropolitan water supplies that test for it.

Monsanto, photo by Steve Cadman
Monsanto, photo by Steve Cadman

While at least one distiller has gone on record to say that whatever toxins may be present in GMO corn prior to distillation are highly unlikely to make it to the finished product, more than one have also said that they don’t know for certain about the potential ramifications and aren’t willing to take any risk with their customers. Jim Rutledge, of Four Roses said, “The whiskey distilled today will not become a bottled product for another four to 15 years. If a GMO grain is discovered to have an issue five years from now, or if the government decides any GMO products must be labeled as such, then the distillery would be in quite a bind with all that aging product now affected. The premium they pay for non-GMO grain is considered insurance against any possible issues later.”

Regardless of its effect on spirits, the point I’m trying to make here is that the production of GMO corn is toxic to our environment. Using it in spirits contributes significantly to that pollution, and we have an obligation to do something about it. With no concern for harming corn crops with herbicides, farmers can (and do) spray more than is needed, and the excess goes into our water supply. When considering large-scale spraying, there is inevitably a lack of control as to where all the excess ends up, and countless analyses have shown it in water supplies all around the world. Whether or not it winds up in our spirits is a different debate, but with water being the main ingredient in most spirits (a standard, 80 proof spirit is 60% water), it would seem that if toxins don’t make it through the distillation process, they certainly might make it into the end product through their introduction in the water. (The water may also explain certain people’s insistence that certain spirits’ gluten content cause ill affect. It’s fair enough to say that it’s pretty conclusive among experts that they don’t make it through distillation.)

According to a New York Times article from July 2012 called Corn for Food, Not Fuel, “More than one-third of our corn crop is used to feed livestock. Another 13 percent is exported, much of it to feed livestock as well. Another 40 percent is used to produce ethanol. The remainder goes toward food and beverage production.” The corn that goes to feed livestock eventually winds up with us anyway, through meat and milk, so a strong argument could be made that more of it ends up in food and beverage after all. (It’s interesting to note that cows are not biologically equipped to process corn, so while it fattens them up quicker for the slaughterhouse and encourages more milk production, the meat and milk are provided by unhealthy cows.)

With only about 15 percent of the corn produced being used directly in food and beverage production, it would seem like our industry plays a very small part in the problem; but we have an exponentially larger opportunity to educate consumers than other corn users. It is our obligation to impart them with the knowledge to make decisions about consumption that are well informed and harmonious with their individual belief systems. With so much debate about the dangers/merits of GMOs, it seems a matter of both safety and logic to err on the side of caution. The fact of the matter is that we really don’t know whether it’s detrimental to our health or not, but there is no question that it is harmful to our environment. Additionally, there is a world of alternate source materials with which to produce ethanol. Wood chips and oil-soaked earth, if one believes famed mycologist Paul Stamets, are just two alternative options. CO2 production is a byproduct of any fermentation process, but alternative ethanol production is on a much smaller scale than with the ethanol produced by traditional, industrial agriculture. With so many alternatives, why continue using corn for ethanol fuel? If it doesn’t matter how it tastes, why not use an organic material that doesn’t require the introduction of toxins during any part of the process?

One need not look much further than profit margins to determine the motivation, and it’s no coincidence that the same company who is lobbying in support of glyphosate and Bt toxins is the same responsible for the travesty that was DDT. Ever heard of Agent Orange? None but the same. Taken directly from their website, “Monsanto offers farmers a wide range of corn, soybean, cotton, wheat, canola, sorghum and sugar cane seeds. We use our elite seed genetics and cutting-edge traits and technologies to create products that meet farmers’ wants and needs.” Monsanto currently produces dozens of seeds and weed control products, and formerly manufactured controversial products such as the insecticide DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and bovine growth hormone. How are we not supposed to be suspicious of a company that has such a devastating track record? How can we not be skeptical of individuals who migrate back and forth between the board/legal team of Monsanto and their seats in positions of power in the federal government? Hilary Clinton, Clarence Thomas and Donald Rumsfeld all have ties to Monsanto, as does the current Deputy Commissioner of foods for the FDA, Michael Taylor. It should go without saying that this is a clear conflict of interest. With so many powerful players, it doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to say that facts could easily be manipulated to cause so much confusion that getting to the truth could be difficult at best. Because of these complications, there is currently not enough uncontested data to say with certainty that GMOs are safe for human consumption. What we do know is that if they perpetuate, we may not be able to contain it if there is a problem.

photo by Nathan Gibbs
photo by Nathan Gibbs

So, while some claim the distillation process destroys the toxins with which the corn is laden, the corn is still laden with toxins. That’s what matters. If we eat and drink food and beverages made from GMO corn, we contribute to the contamination of our water, atmosphere, and soil, and perpetuate unsustainable and potentially unsafe farming practices. That alone is reason enough for me to avoid them, and at the very least condone advertising their presence in our food supplies. How much sense does it make that in order to get certified organic, a farmer must jump through a myriad of hoops, fill out countless hours of paperwork, pay all kinds of fees and satisfy dozens of other requirements while a non-organic farmer doesn’t have to do anything that indicates the use of toxic chemicals in those products? Seems entirely backward to me. Shouldn’t organic be the norm? Shouldn’t it be the toxic chemicals that are mandated to label?

If you care as much about our environment as I do, you can help. If you like spirits made with corn, you can do a little homework and find out whether or not they use GMO corn in their mashbill. If they do, don’t buy their product. It really is that simple. Consumers have an incredible amount of power when it comes to how they spend their money. If demand for products produced from GMO products wanes, so will the likelihood of their proliferation. Explore alternative sources of ethanol. Lobby for labeling of GMOs. Vote… especially with your dollars. Drink local, organic, sustainable and conscientiously. Do it for your fellow drinkers, do it for our environment and do it for future generations. There are seven days in the week, but “someday” isn’t one of them. The time to act is now. Drink wisely!

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