Brewing without GMOs

I’m one of those slackers who is generally opposed to GMOs in the food supply, while assuming that most everything in the food supply these days is GMO. So I garden, cook a lot, and aim for organic when I shop, but ultimately, money is an object and – personal motto here – nothing’s perfect. So I’ve been brewing for a long time without specifically researching what I’m putting into my beer, in part because I expected the news to be bad.

I know a lot of people consider this view superstition, but when you look at how little testing has been done and how agribusiness has treated farmers who’ve had their fields polluted by GMO pollen, it’s tough for me to feel good about GMOs entering the food supply. Because of this, I’ve long worked under the assumption that European-sourced ingredients – where GMOs are generally disallowed – are a better choice than US, but as I research further, my concerns about exotic genes in the US grain supply are easing. (Corn and soybeans are the glaring exception.)

Here’s the US Department of Agriculture on wheat:

“Genetic improvement has been slower for wheat because of the grain’s genetic complexity and lower potential monetary returns to commercial seed companies, which discourage investment in research. In the corn sector, where hybrids are used, farmers generally buy seed from dealers every year. However, many wheat farmers, particularly in the Plains States, use saved seed instead of buying from dealers every year. In addition, U.S. food processors are wary of consumer reaction to products containing genetically modified (GM) wheat, so no GM wheat is grown in the United States.”

According to this European Union site, there are zero approved GMO applications for barley, the primary brewing grain for beer. That’s global, not just EU countries.

Which brings us to corn, adjunct and source of so many sugars in the food supply today. That little baggie of priming sugar in your homebrew kit? Corn sugars, as is pretty much every soda you drink and the sugars in most processed food. The bad news is that the vast majority of the US corn crop is GMO (in the 90% range) and that GM corn is grown in the EU, so if you’re into reducing your impact, you’ve got to shop specifically for clean corn sugars.

Seven Bridges carries organic, GMO-free brewing ingredients, including dextrose for priming.

Corn is wind pollinated, so a neighboring field of GMO corn can contaminate a clean crop, and the pesticides used on the US corn crop have been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. At this point, commodity corn just strikes me as a massive catastrophe, both from a legal standpoint (Monsanto suing farmers who don’t buy their seed), an ecological standpoint (dead bees and weird genes everywhere), and a huge dietary problem as our food supply is pumped full of massively processed sugars extracted from corn.

With our All Thumbs brew, we used a few ounces of extra light dried malt for priming. I’ve also been reading up on kraussening and similar approaches, where some wort is saved from the batch, with or without yeast, and then added back to the bottling bucket for priming.

In any case, the good news is that the wheat and barley in your brew aren’t GMO, and there are plenty of options for replacing modified corn sugars with organic or even alternative sugars.

I’ll take a look at organic options for brewers, especially with hops, in another post.

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