don’t throw the word hero around very often, but in this case the cape fits. Out on the vast plains of western Kansas in the tiny agricultural berg of Hoxie, there is a couple that is taking a great risk to stand up for science, stand up for agriculture and stand up for their fellow farmers.
Allison and Cole Nondorf grow corn, milo, soybeans and wheat on thousands of acres near Hoxie. They also operate a wine, beer and liquor retail store in town—A&C Liquid Assets. They carry a cross-section of national brands and local labels, and take great pride in being responsive to customers.
“We only sell what the customer wants,” said Allison Nondorf in a recent interview, “And we’re sensitive to which product lines support agriculture, particularly Midwestern farmers.”
Their extended family supplies seeds to the community, so they are well known in this dense agricultural area of Western Kansas, where farmer helps farmer, neighbor helps neighbor.
Which is precisely why you won’t find Smirnoff products at A&C Liquid Assets.
Smirnoff embarked on an advertising campaign last month for its No. 21 Vodka brand in which Hollywood science and agricultural “experts”—actors Jenna Fischer and Ted Danson—proudly proclaim that it is now “Non-GMO”.
“By using non-GMO corn for Smirnoff No. 21 Vodka, we’re ensuring that anyone who avoids gluten and GMO ingredients in their everyday life still has the option to enjoy a delicious Smirnoff cocktail,” said Jay Sethi, Vice President, Smirnoff, Diageo North America.
The promotion is deceptive, and it is infuriating scientists and farmers. Alcohol is classified as a Class 1 carcinogen. Apparently, Smirnoff sees value in promoting that an alcoholic drink known to cause cancer in humans is now not made from absolutely harmless ingredients—corn genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant or insect resistant, which substantially curtails the use of insecticides.
After 23 years since the introduction of genetically engineered (or “GMO”) crops to the U.S., there has not been a single case of human or animal illness attributed to their consumption. On the other hand, it is estimated that alcohol causes more than 21,000 cancer deaths a year, almost four percent of all U.S. cancer deaths. Such deceptive marketing follow in the footsteps of Ketle One vodka and Wild Turkey whiskey, which embarked down a similar science-free path a few years ago.
Vodka is distilled from fermenting cereal grains or potatoes. It is essentially ethyl alcohol and water, with a dissolved speck of character imparted by volatiles that hitch a ride through the distillation process. Most vodka is does not contain ingredients from genetically engineered crops, as it is made from wheat, rye or potatoes—all non-GE crops. However, some brands, like most of Smirnoff’s other labels, do include corn in the mix, and that likely originates from a plant equipped with biotech traits.
(Note that the non-GMO label is not Smirnoff’s only anti-science marketing scam. It brags that it’s No. 21 Vodka “has always been gluten-free.” That’s true but disingenuous. Smirnoff makes its vodka from corn, while gluten is only linked to wheat-based products, and there is no commercially-produced GMO wheat).
Smirnoff proudly proclaims that it refuses to use ingredients from GE crops. But why and at what consequence to American farmers?
The Nondorfs and the farmers in their community choose to grow GE crops because they are more sustainable. Smirnoff, they said, does not support the farmers that provide the grains that go into their vodka. Their store, A&C Liquid Assets, has decided it will not sell Smirnoff products. Instead, A&C Liquid Assets will offer samples of spirits produced from Kansas-grown grains. Brands like Most Wanted, and Behind Bars are made with local grains. Milo is a popular local liquor made from locally-grown milo.
“The locally sourced brands are the same price or less, and you get the pleasure of knowing that it could be your grain and your work inside that bottle,“ Allison Nondorf explained.
It only makes sense. Why would anyone in agriculture purchase vodka from a company that denigrates the choices that help farmers remain competitive and sustainable?
And in that spirit of support for agriculture, Allison removed the Smirnoff products from the shelves and returned them to the distributor. It is a risky move, as Smirnoff advertises heavily and is a widely-recognized name brand.
Despite a potential loss of sales and removing a brand with name recognition from the shelf, Allison feels that standing up for the science and standing up for farming is much more important.
Allison and Cole are taking a bold step that everyone in agriculture or science should follow—stop supporting companies that capitulate to fear-based marketing to sell a product.
“This community amazes me. We believe our Ag community will support our decision and stand by us in saying no to Smirnoff. I’m excited to offer the customer a better product that may source from a farm down the street and often at a lower price.”
Agricultural biotechnology has been a benefit to the farmer, the environment, the consumer, and could go a long way to helping those suffering from food insecurity. The Non-GMO Project and the non-GMO movement have concocted a brand based on fear, creating uncertainty around farmers’ safe products, and going against the grain of science.
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Dr. Kevin Folta is a Professor at the University of Florida actively involved in public education about genetics and agricultural technology. He hosts the weekly Talking Biotech Podcast featured on the GLP. Follow him on Twitter @kevinfolta