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.
The facts are these: many things must change in humanity's way of living or we all face extinction. Nature has a balance that humankind has disrupted and it must be placed back. We can argue eternally about the details, but facts are facts. There are reasons why miners carried canaries with them. Society’s canary has died and we cannot remain in this cave. Ancient farmers lived and worked in harmony with the land and the seasons, not in opposition with them. They paid attention to the moon and the tides; breathed with the universe—inhaling and exhaling as its cycles waxed and waned... planted on inhales, harvested on exhales... a timelapse of a breathing planet. Biodynamics wasn’t a marketing term; it was a way of life. Agriculture has gotten so far away from sustainable practices that something had to be done to bring the balance back into the farmer’s favor. Enter GMOs.
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 (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 affect humans and other mammals. Bt corn’s affects 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.
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. Volumes of studies have been undertaken, books written, documentaries produced and boycotts organized, so it should go without saying that the problem is incredibly complicated and multi-faceted. The point of this article is that production of GMO corn is toxic to our environment. Again, I repeat: with no concern of harming corn crops with herbicides, farmers can (and do) spray more than is needed, and the excess goes directly 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, it would seem that if toxins don’t make it through the distillation process, they certainly might make it in through to the end product with the introduction of 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. The 40 percent producing ethanol represents a significant number, and although it hasn’t been made explicit, it would make sense to think that at least some of that ethanol is used in food and beverage, no? Sticking to our unsustainable ways neglects the possibility of investing in alternative fermentation processes, in researching alternative alcohol-producing fungi (yes, yeast is a fungus) that convert other organic compounds to ethanol, such as wood chips and even oil-soaked earth, if one believes the gospel of Paul Stamets. CO2 production occurs, but on a much smaller scale than with industrial agriculture.
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. It is our obligation to impart them with the knowledge to make decisions on 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.
One need not look much further than profit margins to determine the motivation of agrochemical companies, 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.” They currently produce 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 one deny the interconnectivity of humans and nature? Every elementary school kid knows about the food web and chain. What happens when the carcass of the insect that internally combusts from ingesting BT toxin gets eaten by a fish? What happens when an eagle eats that same fish? Numerous scientific studies have shown that rabbits that eat BT corn develop enormous tumors in as little as six months. Again, the debate in this article is about GMO corn and its use in ethanol production, not on human health, but the effects of GMOs on our environment. Our environment, however, is directly related to our health, so we can’t talk about one and not talk about the other.
There is currently not enough data to say with certainty that GMOs are safe for human consumption. What we do know with certainty is that if they perpetuate, we may not be able to contain it if there is a problem. That alone is reason enough for me to avoid them, and at the very least condone advertising their presence in our food supplies.
Return to the canary. Irrelevant what the distillation process does to the toxins that the corn is laden with. The corn is laden with toxins. That’s what matters. Drink GMO corn, contribute to glyphosate (and many others) poisoning. Of our water, of our atmosphere, of our soil… don’t get bogged in the mire of details.