Nearly 90 percent of the corn in this country is genetically-modified. And as using genetically-modified—or GM—corn becomes increasingly popular in everyday foods, more people are becoming concerned about potential ill effects on human health and the environment.
Besides being used in food, that corn is also finding its way into Kentucky’s signature spirit: bourbon.
In the grain room at the Four Roses Distillery, master distiller Jim Rutledge is pours corn kernels into a small glass.
“I’m just going to heat this up,” he says.
He takes the glass out, shakes it, and buries his nose in the scent, much as a wine or whiskey connoisseur might.
“It’s got a very sweet, a very clean aroma,” he says, shaking it around a bit. “If there’s anything off, anything different than this, no matter how slight, we’ll get several people to take a look. And if there’s anything off at all, we’ll reject the load.”
Tainted corn means tainted bourbon, so it’s important to make sure each batch is good.
Rutledge’s corn looks like any other corn, but it's different from the corn that goes into nearly every other Kentucky bourbon: it’s not genetically modified.
Last year, 88 percent of all corn grown in the United States was genetically modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means it’s getting harder for companies to find non-GMO corn.
Rutledge says Four Roses is only able to keep getting it because the company willing to pay a premium for its corn—and the farm group they’ve been using for 52 years is still GMO-free.
“You know, they’re giving it to us right now, how long it can last…because if you start out in the Midwest, just about all the crops that are grown use GMO materials,” he says. “As it spreads wider and wider and wider across the U.S., it’ll eventually become virtually impossible to have really GMO free corn.”
The shortage has already forced larger companies like Brown-Forman to change strategies. Spokesman Phil Lynch says the company decided to use only non-GM corn for its Jack Daniels Whiskey (of course, not a bourbon, but still corn-based) in 2000, based on consumer perceptions. But a decade later, that wasn’t an option.
“Ultimately it just became impossible to source enough non-GM corn in order to make enough whiskey,” Lynch says.
There are a few reasons for that. More and more farmers are choosing to plant GM seeds because they yield hardier crops that require fewer pesticides. And those genetically-modified crops often contaminate other fields through cross-pollination, which means that some farmers are finding keeping their crops GMO-free is beyond their control.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the USDA is committed to letting farmers choose whether they want to grow GM or GM-free products.
“We’re also working with farmers from all sides of the issue to try to figure out ways in which we can better enable farmers to get along, to be able to farm, to be able to do with their land and their operation what they choose to do,” Vilsack says.
But right now, farmers have little recourse if their crops are contaminated by GMOs.
So, should you care if you’re drinking genetically-modified corn in your bourbon? The jury’s still out. Chances are, you’re already consuming a lot of it…in products like soda and canola oil.
Doug Gurian-Sherman is a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says there’s no conclusive evidence that the GMO products on the market today are dangerous to human health, but:
“There could be many different types of genetically-engineered genes from many different sources put into our crops in coming years,” Gurian-Sherman says. “And with an inadequate regulatory system, we don’t feel that we can be as confident as we should that these crops are going to be safe.”
The United States doesn’t have a labeling requirement, though most other developed nations do. And Gurian-Sherman says the government is placing too much of the onus on companies to ensure their product is safe for human health.
The bourbon companies say using GM corn in their products isn’t a concern, because there’s no genetically-modified material left in the bourbon after distillation. Several manufacturers cited scientific studies that confirm this, but the Kentucky Distillers’ Association wasn’t able to produce the research, and wouldn’t return further calls for comment.
And even companies like Four Roses that could market their products as “GMO free”—don’t. Four Roses’ Jim Rutledge:
“No, we don’t market. We don’t advertise,” he says.
Rutledge figures some day he won’t be able to find GM-free corn to use in his bourbon. But when that day comes, Four Roses will still have at least six years of GM-free bourbon aging in barrels.