According to the USDA, almost 90% of the corn planted in the US is genetically engineered. And since by definition bourbon must be made with at least 51 percent corn, that means most bourbon is made with GM corn.
There are only two brands of bourbon that don’t use genetically engineered products: Wild Turkey and Four Roses. And according to Grist writer Twilight Greenaway, if it weren’t for the international market, GMO-free bourbon might not exist at all.
In 2009, Brown-Forman, the maker of Jack Daniels — not a bourbon, but a Tennessee whiskey made with 80 percent corn — announced that it would end its commitment to using GMO-free corn [PDF].
In a statement, Brown-Forman wrote: “We have never been concerned by the use of GM grains in making bourbon and whiskey because none of the GM materials make it through the distilling process to the final product.
“However, in the year 2000, a number of our consumers, particularly those in Europe, expressed a preference for non-GM ingredients, and after considering those perceptions, we opted for only 100% non-genetically modified corn.
“Since 2000, the North American grain market has changed significantly. A rapidly shrinking supply of non-GM corn in North America is making it increasingly more difficult to source the quantity of high quality corn required for our bourbons and whiskeys.”
Greenaway notes neither Brown-Forman, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA), nor the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) have made any scientific research public that is related to whether the genetic material from GMO corn passes through the distillation process, and KDA did not respond to Greenaway’s inquiries.
Additionally, the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau officially denied a growing number of requests to label spirits GMO-free.
In the frequently asked questions page on the TTB website, the agency says that although they have received many requests, “TTB believes it is not necessary to mandate any bioengineered food labeling requirements at this time … This is consistent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s position.”
According to Colin O’Neil, regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, to assume that the only real risk is contamination of genetic material ignores the fact that these crops by and large either produce an insecticide (which has been shown not to break down in the human gut) or they are engineered to withstand exposure to herbicide.
“And farmers are spraying an increasing amount of Roundup and other weed killers as a result of herbicide-resistant superweeds.”
Greenaway notes Four Roses does business with one of the last remaining group of farmers in the Midwest who grow non-GMO corn for distillation, largely to appease the international markets, where 90 percent of their product is shipped.
“The European and Asian markets won’t buy whiskey made with GMO corn,” says Jim Rutledge, a 45-year veteran distiller at Four Roses. But, he adds, “Due to cross-pollination, even the farmers not using GMO corn will end up with it eventually. I don’t know how many years we can continue like this.”
Rutledge claims by the time Four Roses is unable to get GMO-free corn, the larger distilleries will have changed the industry permanently. “For anyone who wants bourbon, it’ll be a GMO product,” he says. “But we’re a few years away from that now.”
Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell claims Wild Turkey doesn’t use GMO grains because “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.”
If It’s Not Organic, It’s GMO
About 80 percent of all processed food on grocery shelves contains genetically engineered (GMO) ingredients, including GMO high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used as a sweetener in virtually everything from cereal to ketchup.
The USDA has also approved Monsanto’s first commercial genetically altered sweet corn vegetable product. The new GMO sweet corn ears will be sold in the produce section of grocery stores, added in canned and frozen foods, and will be indistinguishable from natural corn because the FDA does not require genetically altered food products to be labeled.
Monsanto has now planted GM seeds for corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa, and is developing genetically modified seed for many other crops.