written by Joseph Bair
Genetic modification is evolution. It crops up naturally in plants and there are other accepted scientific ways of breeding. In the past 30 years, technology has developed ways of combining genes with a new twist—it can be done with just about any gene; to and from any plant, animal, fish or insect.
In 1973, the first GMOs made were bacteria. By 1974, GMO mice were generated. GMO food has been sold since 1994. The first GMO pet was sold in 2003. FYI, GMO can be detected by tracing it down with polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety defines GMO as, “Any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.” Modern biotechnology is using genetic mapping technology, and knowing what each genetic marker does, and using the right tools (Agrobacterium or the Gene Gun).
Conventional breeding is not considered GMO. It takes favorable genes along with some unfavorable genes from one species and breeds it with the same species. Crossbreeding is an example.
Cisgenic Genetic Modification is considered GMO. It accomplishes the same thing as conventional breeding, but by using biotechnology so it can pinpoint the exact favorable gene it will substitute within the same species; it is just a shortcut to conventional breeding. It does not intermix the species gene pool.
Transgenic Genetic Modification is also considered GMO. It uses biotechnology to pinpoint and replace unrelated organisms and other genes. With long-term or widespread use, it can alter the species genetic pool permanently.
GMO and Beer Ingredients
Barley: All barley grains sold at harvest are non-GMO. There are GMO organisms that produce enzymes that help it convert in the process. Enzymes are very specific enablers that can speed up biochemical reactions hundreds and thousands-fold, thus saving energy and resources and biodegrading after use. Briess Malting Company state their products are non-GMO.
Wheat: There is no GMO wheat that is grown commercially in the US, but there are field GMO tests going on.
Corn: Maize or corn sugar (priming sugar) most likely are GMO as 85% of the total US produced corn crop is GMO. Some Double IPAs use corn to boost ABV.
Hops: The legal definition of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) excludes many of the methods that are “genetically modified,” such as artificial mutations (polyploids). Polyploids most common form is triploids and they are considered commercially valuable in all forms in agriculture due to being seedless. The disadvantage is genetic diversity is threatened and just one disease (known or unknown) is capable of affecting every clone.
The gene mapping of hops and molecular marker identification will soon lead to the sequence of the hop genome which has begun with the USDA-ARS Hop Genetics and Breeding Program. No data has been made publicly available yet. The goals are for the improvement of hops and to shorten the lag time, costs and guesswork in bringing products to the market. Yakima Chief and Hopunion certify that their hops and hop products currently are “GMO-FREE.”
Yeast: Although no GMO yeast has been made yet, the US and the UK governments are funding for synthetic biology to create a yeast strain that can outperform natural strains. Lalvin yeast labels state “GMO-FREE.
To label or not to label?
To this day, there is no state that requires GMO labels on food. Would there be an impact on the sales and future of GMO if it was labeled? The most controversial actor in the GMO world is opposed to mandatory GMO labeling laws because, “It could be interpreted as a warning or imply that these ingredients are harmful or somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.” This did not happen with organic food labeling versus conventional, so I can’t see why it would happen with GMO. I have seen beer ingredient manufacturers become proactive and print “GMO Free” or “Non- GMO” on the label, and I did not see a surge in sales for that item over another that did not have that labeling.
Connecticut’s passing of mandatory GMO labeling will only go into effect after four other states enact similar legislation and one of the states must share a border with Connecticut. Once that is done, the combined total population of those Northeastern states must be 20 million-plus for it to pass. Maine also passed a GMO labeling bill this year, but the Governor said there are constitutional issues of preempting food regulation by the Federal Government. California put GMO labeling on the ballot late last year, as a right to know law—it was defeated.
Whenever new breeding methods crop up, it is gently introduced as having benefits (bred-in-efficiency) and the old crop fades away. Everything seems good, until something goes wrong, and the trajectory of the debate is altered. When that happens, the risk perception, emotions, cultural resistance, poor and random framing can fuel or confirm suspicions. Right now, GMO is considered as safe as any other food.
There are the farmers, scientists, economics and politics (principally, foreign policy) that all play a role in the future of food (hopefully not beer) and the industrialized agriculture companies have a big long term monetary interest in the GMO business.
These companies have been helping to prevent starvation in countries since the green revolution started, and that was without GMO.
In the time of climate change, food security is a threat. Worsening drought and floods require smarter use of land, less waste, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. An agricultural scientist’s ability to provide higher yield and climate resistant strains is needed with a perceptive understanding and intelligent application of Cisgenic Genetic Modification biotechnology—which can make it all possible.
Still, there is no reason to make beer ingredients GMO. Nobody is starving for beer. Please keep beer ingredients and beer labeled non-GMO and GMO-Free!