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Plans To Research Genetically Modified Barley For Scotch Whisky

by Oliver Klimek on February 20, 2014

According to Deadline News, scientists at the at the Scottish Agricultural College (SRUC) have been funded to research a fungus that affects barley grown in Scotland and to look how the plant can be genetically modified to be resistant.

GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) have been highly controverisal, especially in Europe. Genetically modified maize and soy in particular have been used in agriculture for quite a while, mainly outside Europe though. Use in Europe is highly regulated and usually accomanied by fierce protests. But because of the global nature of today’s food business it is believed that a significant quantity of our food is already affetcted by GMO in one way or another.

Scotland needs to import a large portion of its barley anyway, but without a doubt fungus-resistant varieties would be attractive to farmers outside Scotland as well.

While so far there have not been any reports on health risks of GMOs, little research on the effects has been done, not the least because of intellectual property issues. And it is exactly this uncertainty that is a main reason for the lack of acceptance of “gene food” in the public. My personal view is that the topic is so complex and effects are still so unclear that it would be better to wait until more research on GMO effects has been done. Because we have already seen with other plants: when it’s out there, it’s hardly controllable anymore.

The official statement of the Scotch Whisky Association was:

“As a long-term business, the Scotch Whisky industry is always looking at different aspects of production, including cereals research, to ensure sustainable supply.

“As a major buyer of Scottish barley, research into ramularia leaf spot is welcome.”

Note the careful wording obviously designed to avoid the specific mention of genetic modification. The SWA will know about the predictable acceptance problems. Isn’t Scotch whisky largely marketed as a natural product? As things currently stand the risk of a buyers boycott appears to be bigger than the benefit of having a more reliable barley source.

And it is entirely unclear what effects such new genetically modified barley varieties would actually have on the quality of whisky. The same accounts for beer, of course.

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