Genetically modified food, once believed fiction is now fact. Scientists now have the ability to change the actual physical DNA/genes of both plants and animals in order to add and change characteristics of the specific plant/animal. The advent of genetically modified food or GMO (genetically modified organism), for short, is now commonplace in many food products consumed by people all over the world. This rise in GMOs in our food chain has led to some very serious questions for health reasons and for the bioethical approach in its relationship to religion. Many fundamental questions in manipulating genes continue to be debated in both scientific and religious communities alike. It is very likely that many of the debates that continue raging on will never truly be answered. This paper is not meant to answer all the complexities of the bioethical issues involved in gene splicing, but is merely meant to explore the different ways religions address the issue of gene altering of both plants/animals, specifically how the Jewish religion defines GMO food in labeling food as kosher. To begin, it is imperative to first understand simply what genetically modified foods are. “When food-crops are genetically modified, one or more genes are incorporated into the crop’s genome using a vector containing several other genes, including as a minimum, viral promoters, transcription terminators, antibiotic resistance marker genes and reporter genes,” according to the actionbioscience website. In the simplest terms, scientists combine the genes (DNA) of one plant/animal and add them to another plan/animal in order to get a desired trait and/or characteristic. For example, a scientist may splice a pig gene into a soybean gene in order to make it more resistant to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, weather, etc. or any combination of them. Genetically modified foods try to solve the issue of world hunger by, of course, making them resistant to almost anything.
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Corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Cargill are the leading companies that are currently patenting their genes for GMO commercialization. Many foods today that are commercially available are genetically modified. According to the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) there exist over 40 plant varieties that have passed the federal government’s requirements for commercializing genetically modified food. Tomatoes, soybeans, and cantaloupes are just a few examples of the many plants that are genetically modified. Soybeans and corn remain the most prevalent plant species that undergo genetic modification (82% of all GMO crops were both corn and soybeans) cotton, canola (rapeseed) and potatoes trailing behind. Most genetically modified food is grown in the United States. 68% of all genetically modified crops were farmed in the United States; Argentina, Canada, and China together produced 23%, Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain, and Uruguay account for the other 9% (CSA.com)
It is interesting to note that today in the United States there are no rules proposed by the FDA that require manufacturers to state whether their ingredients underwent any sort of genetic manipulation. In many cases the manufacturer does not even have a way to verify if the ingredients they use contain GMO. According to Nancy Morvillo, in most cases, “many non-GMO and GMO foods are mixed together, making it even harder to discern if a product has been genetically modified” (191). The only way ensure that a product is not genetically modified is to buy organic because the USDA does not allow any food to be labeled as organic if there has been any form of genetic modification. Thus, sometimes it becomes difficult for private companies to ensure a product is genetically modified free in their analysis of determining if a food is kosher or not.
There are many aspects in the Jewish religion that determine if a product is to be kosher or not. Like in any field, there are many different views and ideas of what defines foods as being kosher. Jewish people keep kosher for primarily two reasons; Jewish people believe in god, who created the world and that sustains it. God also entered into a covenant with the Jewish people and gave the torah, obligating Jews to fulfill those commandments, the kosher laws being one of them. This delves us into another question, why, then, does god want the Jews to keep kosher? Well, one interesting find explains that the idea of kosher food is meant to be safer to eat, healthier. According to Miryam Wahrman, “Kosher food must not harm an individual and/or animal, that’s why there are many rules on the slaughtering of an animal — there must not be any pain for the animal” (151).
For instance, Jews who keep kosher can not eat shellfish, mollusks, lobsters, stone crabs and other sea creatures of this ilk because they are known to have spread typhoid and are a source for urticara (a neurotic skin affliction – a notable skin rash). They also cannot eat/drink milk and meat together because they each digest at an unequal rate which makes it difficult for the body to process the food. Many, in fact, separate those dishes that use dairy products to keep away from meat products. Birds of prey are also not kosher, because the tension and hormones produced might make the meat unhealthy. Of course, notoriously, pork is not considered kosher because it comes from a pig. In kosher law it forbids the consumption of an animal whose hooves are split and who does not chew its own cud. It is said that these animals are deemed “unclean.” Jews also keep kosher because the torah calls the Jews a “holy people” and prescribes a holy diet. The old adage “you are what you eat” plays a pivotal role in god’s diet for spirituality. Jewish mysticism teaches that non-kosher food blocks the spiritual potential of the soul, thus making one more distant from god. This is another reason why kosher animals must be properly slaughtered. It is said that the animals have more “sparks of holiness” (according to the Kabbalah) which are incorporated into human body.
Much like in the Jewish religion, Muslims keep another special diet called halal, which is very similar to kosher food guidelines that Jewish people observe as well as the reasoning behind it, both with regard to health and spirituality. For instance, Muslims who keep halal, do not eat the blood of an animal, because the blood contains a chemical known as uric acid, which is known to be harmful to humans. Those who keep halal do not eat pig as well, because again it is believed that the pig is an unclean animal. The same standards for animal slaughtering for kosher foods are the exact same for halal foods; the butchers use an extremely sharp knife to swiftly cut the blood vessels in the neck to disconnect the nerve that controls pain. The animal must not be in pain otherwise it destroys the holy integrity of the animal.
To this day, it is unclear whether all halal foods are kosher and vice versa. There are many ongoing debates, but the main reasons for keeping such guidelines are for the sake of health and good health promotes healthy spiritualism. The issue of health to individuals makes the issue of genetically modified foods an even more complex issue as well. Again, like in any field, the nutrition field debates the health effects of genetically modified food. Many experts remain skeptical of the advantages of genetically modified food on basis that some of the large corporations behind creating different varieties of plants/animals have an unscrupulous past.
For instance, Monsanto has been known for many health catastrophes such as Agent Orange and somewhat recently with their Bovine Growth Hormone product called Posilac. However, these criticisms are not without any merit. In both the United States and in Europe, children have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and many other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. According to Deborah Whitman, a proposal to incorporate a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans was abandoned because of the “fear of causing an unexpected allergic reaction” (75).
In many health corners there lies a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. A recent study examined the effects of GM potatoes on the digestive tract in rats. This study claimed that there “were appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed GM potatoes and rats fed unmodified potatoes” (Sherlock, Richard, and Morrey 65).
Another criticism for genetically modified foods is that when genetic engineers manipulate the DNA, they may in fact be intentionally removing or inactivating a substance which may have an essential quality for foods, such as a natural cancer inhibiting substance. In addition, genetically modified foods can actually make one’s antibodies less effective. According to Andrew Lustig ,”Antibiotic-resistance genes incorporated into nearly every genetically engineered organism as markers to indicate that an organism has been successfully engineered. Scientists expect these genes and their enzyme products which inactivate antibiotics to be present in engineered foods,” (6). There also may be harmful effects that may not be discovered for years. “Changing the fundamental make-up of a food could cause new diseases, just as herbicides and pesticides did in the past. There are no long-term studies to prove the safety of genetically engineered foods” according to the website ActionBioscience.
As with any new science and technology, the science of safety and health continues to be hotly debated. Genetically engineered foods are regulated closely and have been approved as safe by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Scientists now are, in fact, improving the vitamin/nutritional content of food by adding, for instance, more vitamin A in the food and are also removing, for example, the allergic protein in peanuts. Interestingly, genetically modified foods are at a decreased risk of attacks by micro organisms and herbicides. In 2008, a review published by the Royal Society of Medicine noted that GM foods have been eaten by millions of people all over the world for over 15 years with no reports of ill effects. A similar study in 2004 was conducted from the US National Academies of Sciences stated: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”( Sherlock, Richard, and Morrey 102).
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So, while the health effects of genetically modified food seem to be disputed, another aspect of the debate turns to the use of mixing animal genes with plant genes. A non-kosher DNA source can be implemented in a kosher food source which could essentially turn it into a non-kosher food. Let’s take corn, for example. In many cases corn is in fact spliced with a pig gene. So when there exists a kosher food source (corn) and a non-kosher source (pig) mixed together, this is known as a transgenic organism. This, of course, leads to some very interesting questions. Does the mixture of the DNA from the pig make the corn non-kosher? Are certain parts of the pig’s DNA kosher or not, and if not, how much DNA from a pig is needed to deem the corn non-kosher?
The issue of whether a laboratory copy of an animal gene is the same as an actual animal gene is somewhat perplexing. Some rabbis believe that since the splicing of genes goes through much processing, the actual gene that scientists use to splice the plants with is not actually animal genes. However, not everyone agrees. “Some rabbis have argued that because the DNA implanted within the target organism was not itself directly extracted from non-kosher animals but is merely a laboratory copy of an animal gene, there is no tissue transfer and no halakhic (kosher law) problem. This argument, though initially appealing, loses its force in light of the fact that genes are continually being copied within every living organism. Organisms grow through cell division, and each time a cell divides (becoming two cells), all of its genes are copied. Since the new copies function in the same way as do the genes from which they were replicated, there is no essential difference between them. That is how the organism’s integrity is maintained as new cells augment and replace the old. In an adult animal, every gene is a copy derived from one original set, and most are products of many generations of copies.” (Brunk et al. 25-26). The author concludes that mixing a non-kosher source with a kosher source through genetic manipulation, in fact, makes the organism non-kosher.
However, some say that even though a non-kosher source was mixed with a kosher source, the food still becomes kosher, because the kosher source still contains either some or a majority of the non-kosher DNA already in the kosher DNA. According to Nancy Morvillo, “Kosher and halal requirements have many similarities, but it would be a mistake to take comparisons too far. Still, biologists note that individual genes in and of themselves are not unique to their source. For example, one would find thousands of the same genes in swine as exist in lettuce. Yet, lettuce remains halal.” (57-58). The mainstream Jewish opinion seems to agree with this philosophy.
The leading American Kashrut authority, the Orthodox Union, has ruled that genetic engineering “does not affect kosher status” because genetic material is “microscopic,” (Brunk et al. 123). In the science world, however, nothing ever seems to be settled on. According to Nancy Morvillo, “In some cases, Halakha (Jewish religious law) excuses a non-kosher additive that amounts to less than one part in sixty of the resultant mixture. However, this exemption only covers instances in which the non-kosher ingredient was added accidentally. Further, it is inapplicable when the minute ingredient induces a perceptible effect. Accordingly, the exemption does not apply to the case of genetically engineered food, where the questionable substances are intentionally transferred and produce effects that are clearly observable (as will be discussed).” (43-44). In the torah, it almost seems as if god was warning against the use of genetically modified foods. “You shall not let your cattle mate with a diverse kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed” (Leviticus 19:19) and “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed” (Deuteronomy 22: 9-11).
Of course, there is nothing in the torah that specifically states in black and white if genetically modified foods are indeed kosher or not. It is up to the consumer, the religious community, scientists, etc., to decide for themselves what is and what is not kosher. There is a lot of grey area in determining if a transgenic food is kosher or not and this ambiguity will continue to be debated. Of course the safest bet to ensure that one is keeping within the kosher practices would be to all together avoid eating any type of genetically modified food to begin with. For many orthodox Jews, they are specifically staying away from genetically modified foods, because of possible health concerns. Many ask the question, “Would god want his crops to be manipulated?” Many believe that the possible ill health effects that genetically modified foods can possibly cause are a result of god telling people not to eat the crops and, of course, there aren’t any ill effects of leaving Mother Nature in tact. Both in kosher law and under halal, Muslims and Jews an important reason why they do not eat pork is because it increases one’s bad cholesterol, a way of god telling people to simply stop eating it.
It is increasingly more difficult to determine if a food is kosher or not with the advent of new technology. There is no law in the United States that allows for the labeling of genetically modified food, so consumers do not know, unfortunately, if they are eating genetically modified food or not. Although, unlike government labeling where there is only one sole provider of labeling, there are hundreds of different private kosher labeling companies that have different rules in determining if a product is kosher or not. Stricter labeling companies typically do not label foods as kosher if they contain possible foods that underwent genetic modification that are not considered organic. Other companies assume that all genetically modified food is kosher and is much like food hybridization, such fruits like dates, grapefruit, bananas etc. This takes a free market approach to the confusion that genetically modified foods bring to consumers and creates a trust that consumers can rely on to determine if a food is kosher.
In light of all the confusion, some find it disturbing that kosher organizations who should be upholding biblical law are actually approving a science that, for some, feel is clearly forbidden. For thousands of years Jews have adhered to strict food laws governing what is and is not acceptable to eat according to written food laws. With the revolution in the production of food growth over the past decade or so, the determination of what constitutes abiding biblical laws covers uncharted territories. Today, Jews look for foods bearing the kosher label to assure they’re proper and will continue to rely on those labels for the assurances they need. And with regard to the debate over the safety of genetically modified food, it appears it is far from over.
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