After a day in Kansas corn, Cole Nondorf lay in bed watching evening television’s requisite barrage of commercials when he was jolted from near-slumber by a 16-second advertisement. He watched as celebrity faces Ted Danson and Jenna Fischer cheerfully pronounced Smirnoff’s base vodka, No. 21, as non-GMO. Adios to GMO grain and welcome to the inference of health—even inside a bottle of booze. Nondorf sat up, looked at his wife, Allison, and muted the television, “Are they joking? Enough. That is enough.”
When Smirnoff kicked off a promotional campaign in October 2018, touting its No. 21 vodka as free from GMO corn, a Kansas farming couple crossed a business Rubicon. The Nondorfs swept Smirnoff products from the shelves of their liquor store after the commercial aired. The result? A wave of support from farm country and beyond.
Tucked in Sheridan County, in the northwest quarter of the Jayhawk State, the Nondorf operation is a mix of cattle, corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat. The Nondorfs, both 36, also own A & C Liquid Assets, a wine and spirits business located in Hoxie, just off Highway 24, 20 miles north of I-70: Toss a dart at Hoxie on a wall map and the point will land center of Colorado Springs, Denver, Wichita and Kansas City.
A blurred division of labor generally keeps Cole behind the tractor wheel and Allison at the helm of A & C, but the duo reacted in unanimity to the Smirnoff advertisement. “We are farmers and it was a slap in our face,” Allison describes. “The commercial was the usual BS of celebrities hammering us without having a clue. Hypocrisy and political correctness don’t go far in our house.”
“I'm sick of the fear-mongering so many companies use when GMOs have been proven for decades to be safe to produce, consume, and use in everyday foods and fibers,” Cole adds. “It's not real life, and it's why you see so many farmers and ag scientists fighting back on social media, trying to get the truth out. We’re sick of the lies.”
Yet, for all the Nondorf’s cumulative frustrations, the Smirnoff advertisement provided an opportunity for direct action, according to Allison: “We had a chance to stand up and say enough. I’m not OK with being brand-bullied into carrying something that is a lie. For once, we could just say no.”
Two days after viewing the commercial, Allison plucked all the Smirnoff products from the A & C shelves, boxed the bottles, and fronted the bare section with a sign featuring an angry monkey kicking a Smirnoff label: “Legally, the distributor couldn’t take it back, so we put it up for sale, plus tax, for what we bought it for—just to get rid of it.”
When Allison followed with a Facebook post, explaining A & C’s decision, she was overwhelmed by an outpouring of support. “The post got over 100,000 views and we got private messages from around the world thanking us. It was unreal. Then people began stopping by the store to say thank you. I’ll bet 90% of our surrounding community is somehow involved in agriculture.”
Three days after removing Smirnoff products, Allison replaced the stock with Kansas vodkas distilled from Kansas-grown GMO grain: Most Wanted and Behind Bars. “Forget Smirnoff, we went with science,” Allison says.
Smirnoff began its non-GMO promotion on Oct. 9, 2018, with a press release proclaiming the involvement of “American treasures” Ted Danson and Jenna Fischer to “help get the word out.” LGBTQ advocates Laverne Cox and Jonathan Van Ness were among other celebrities involved in the promotion. Van Ness is quoted in the release: “My life is all about balance, and the new bottle isn't just stunning, but it's also inexpensive! The vodka is actually gluten-free and non-GMO, which I live for. Now with Smirnoff, you can say yes to quality ingredients, yes to value and yes to drinking responsibly, honey.”
Jay Sethi, vice-president of Smirnoff, Diageo North America, also made inference to the health-related choice of non-GMO alcohol: “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.”
(Smirnoff did not respond to Farm Journal questions by phone or email related to its non-GMO promotion of No. 21 vodka.)
Smirnoff’s message positioning non-GMO alcohol alongside healthy lifestyle choices gained no traction with the Nondorfs. “They are selling distilled ethanol vodka which is a Group 1 carcinogen. The irony is ridiculous,” Cole says.
“We were baffled,” Allison echoes. “Smirnoff is selling people alcohol and then claiming to be worried about being GMO-free. What kind of health hypocrisy is that? Smirnoff jumped on the anti-GMO bandwagon for one reason: sales. It’s comical to pretend you are drinking more healthy vodka and it shouldn’t even be legal to put non-GMO on an alcohol label.”
Weighing the Risk
The Nondorfs acknowledge their position could have triggered blowback for A & C, but the risks were irrelevant, according to Allison: “We don’t want to lose customers, but nothing is worth walking away from the truth.”
What advice does Allison offer other farmers and small business owners? “Farmers lose hours at their tables to bring food to other’s tables. Just because someone famous is being paid to represent something they do not understand, farmers get a bad rap. I found an opportunity to stand up for farmers, science and ourselves. I hope more follow.” For more on the Nondorf's story, listen to Kevin Folta's Talking Biotech Podcast.
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