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Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

Sunday, February 28, 2016 @ 10:02 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Credit: USDA

Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient.

Conscious and more cost-effective breeding activity accelerated in the twentieth century of the common era with the use of nuclear technologies, tissue cultures, haploid breeding and, most recently, transgenic technology. The latter technology encompasses the placing genetic material of one species into another resulting in an organism described as transgenic. In this light, GM crops are really genetically engineered (“GE”) crops or biotech crops. The terms will be used interchangeably here.

Genetically engineered crops were introduced on a commercial level in the United States in 1996. Since then, corn, soybean and cotton farmers have adopted GM crops rapidly and robustly. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, as of 2015, the percentage of acreage in the United States utilizing GM seeds has reached 92% for corn and 94% for cotton and soybeans. Farmers in the United States like GM seeds primarily because they increase the crop yield, and also because their use reduces management time and decreases the cost of pesticides.

The United States is far from the only country which has adopted GM seeds. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (“ISAAA”), by 2014 GM crops were being produced in twenty-eight countries, some developed, but many not.  More than thirty other countries import biotech crops.

The rapid and robust rise of GM crops has not come without controversy. Two broad categories of claims have been advanced against GM crops. The first is that they are neither safe nor fit for consumption because they are unnatural and untested and will introduce toxins and allergens and otherwise harm consumers. The second is that the corporate purveyors of GM crop seed are improperly seeking to control the crop market to their financial advantage and the economic detriment of farmers and the general population.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (“AAAS”), the charges related to food safety are unfounded. In the United States, the largest producer of GM crops, “each new GM crop must be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing in order to receive regulatory approval.” The seed producer has the burden of demonstrating both the integrity of any new crop and that any proposed new protein trait is “neither toxic nor allergenic.” Consequently, the overwhelming consensus in the reputable scientific community is that GM crops which have been subjected to national government analysis, testing and approval are safe. More precisely, as the AAAS Board of Directors has put it: “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” The American Medical Association concurs, as does the World Health Organization (see here).

The arguments concerning market control arise from political and economic philosophy, but seem equally dubious. In the United States, the seed market for soybeans and corn is clearly dominated by two companies, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, which split about 70% of each market. Rather than demonstrating control by either, however, market analysis therefore shows that each company has a very strong competitor and numerous smaller competitors. Neither Monsanto nor DuPont Pioneer appears to have the market power, much less the legal authority, to force any farmer to do anything.

What does all this have to do with Jews and Judaism?

At its crassest level, GM crops provide one more lightening rod for anti-Semites. In one such diatribe, the author not only criticizes Monsanto for its Jewish officers and investors, it accuses the company of conspiring with Jews in the United States Food and Drug Adminstration, and (former) “Senator Jew (sic) Lieberman” to secure the “right to shut down farmers who refuse to purchase Jewsanto’s (sic) GMO seeds” and to obtain a “global monopoly . . . forcing the populace to consume this poison.” As the pop star Taylor Swift teaches, though, the “haters gonna hate, hate, hate . . .”, and we just need to “shake, shake . . . shake it off . . . .”

There are also Jews who oppose GM crops, and who purport to do so based on Jewish beliefs and values. One such opponent is Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, advocate of Eco-Judaism and a prolific writer.  A few years ago, Waskow published a Tu B’Shvat Seder to Heal a Wounded Earth. Part of it is premised on the charge that Monsanto is “imposing” GM crops on increasing numbers of farmers, and that Monsanto “threatens the sustainability of agriculture . . . .” No factual support is offered for either of those or related accusations. The first is false as market statistics demonstrate, and the second would be financially suicidal for Monsanto and therefore an extraordinarily improbable effort on its part. There may be a Jewish rationale for opposing GM crops, but what is offered here is, to be charitable, analytically weak, and more a negative, almost Pavlovian reflex to big business, in this case personified by big agri-business giant, Monsanto.

One can almost hear a contemporary Isaiah asking rhetorically, to those comfortable enough to celebrate: “Is this the seder I desire, one that curses a producer of crop seed? Isn’t the seder I desire one that supports the expansion of agricultural resources, that increases the amount of grain available to the poor, that feeds more so that less are hungry?” (Cf. Isa. 58:3-7.)The hard truth, however uncomfortable it may be for some who operate on a more mystical plane, is that in the real world the GM seeds produced by Monsanto and others, sown in hundreds of millions of acres around the globe from Spain to South Africa, from Paraguay to Pakistan, and from China to the Czech Republic put more nutritious food in more mouths than do all the Tu B’Shvat sederim ever held.

Another opponent of GM crops is Raphael Bratman, who has argued that such foods ought not be considered kosher. He also claims that the mixing of species violates a Jewish prohibition known as kilayim. Readers of this site may be familiar with Bratman. He has argued against vaccinations on the grounds that they are unsafe and not kosher, and we have criticized those arguments as not being well grounded either in science or on principles of kashrut. Bratman’s arguments as to GM crops will fare no better.

Bratman’s discussion begins appropriately enough with reference to a statement by the Orthodox Union (“OU”) concerning whether the introduction of non-kosher genetic material into an otherwise kosher product renders the altered product as non-kosher.  Bratman reports that OU’s position is that genetic engineering does not alter the kosher status of the recipient organism for two reasons. First, the amount of transferred genetic material is microscopic and insignificant. Second, the descendants of the altered item were not themselves recipients of non-kosher genetic material. Having found an answer he does not like, and from an authority he selected, instead of reconsidering his position, Bratman expresses his admitted frustration with “OU’s ignorance of the issue” and rejects OU’s statement as “miss(ing) the point completely.” This is not surprising. He took essentially the same tack when his argument that injectable vaccines were not kosher was universally rejected by leading kashrut authorities around the world.

Oddly, the OU statement to which Bratman refers seems to have been deleted (as of this writing) from the OU website. But Chabad Rabbi Tzvi Freeman concurs. Addressing the issue of genetically modified foods, he says: “Although there are instance of genetic material of non-kosher animals being used in kosher food, to date, no one has succeeded in demonstrating that this renders the food non-kosher.”

Bratman’s second objection, based on the doctrine of kilayim, is more problematic, but he spends little time addressing the problems. At its biblical root, kilayim is based on two verses in the Torah, one in the Holiness Code in Leviticus and the other in Deuteronomy. The first bars the mating of two kinds of animals, the sowing of two kinds of seeds in a field and the wearing of clothing made from two kinds of cloth. (See Lev. 19:19.) The provision in Deuteronomy is similar, but not identical. It prohibits seeding a vineyard with two kinds of seeds, plowing with an ox and ass together, and the wearing of wool and linen together. (See Deut. 22:9-11.) The prohibitions are consistent with a worldview that sees a certain order in the universe, believes that such order should be maintained, and emphasizes separation of like from unlike and the preservation of boundaries as defining features of holiness. At the same time, the intent of the authors expressing these rules is neither stated nor clear.

Not surprisingly, renowned rabbis across centuries have disagreed about the interpretation of these phrases. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (also known as Ramban, or Nachmanides) (c. 1194-1270) argued that these rules teach that humankind should not disturb the fundamental nature of God’s creation. Centuries later, Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (The Maharal of Prague) (c. 1525-1609) took a different tack. As summarized by Rabbi Freeman, the Maharal contended that “any change that human beings introduce into the world already existed in potential when the world was created. All that humans do is bring that potential into actuality.”

Within the last few years, committees of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinic associations have addressed the issue of genetically engineered foods. The Responsa Committee of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis (“CCAR”) focused on a narrow question, the permissibility of using a specific modified food known as Golden Rice to save the vision and lives of children. In November, 2015, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly (“RA”) approved a lengthy and detailed study by Rabbi Daniel Nevins regarding the interpretation and application of Jewish law with respect to  host of issues related to genetically modified organisms.

CCAR Responsa no. 5774.5 is, unfortunately, not generally accessible on the internet, but its findings can be summarized here. The Responsa Committee recognized that the primary legal question was whether Golden Rice, being a product of the injection into conventional rice of foreign genetic material designed to provide Vitamin A, was prohibited by kilayim. It concluded that it was not for three reasons: 1) the prohibition only applied to a natural mixing, not to synthetic engineering, 2) having been transformed in a laboratory, the transferred gene segment was not from a different species of plant, but was a “different substance altogether (davar chadash),” and 3) the resulting product was not a new species, but “a member of the same species bearing with new characteristics.”

While finding that “the prohibition of kilayim does not apply to contemporary techniques of genetic modification,” the Committee could not reach a consensus on the effects of GM crops generally or Golden Rice specifically on the ecosystem, another and historic matter of Jewish concern.  (See, e.g., Deut. 20:19-20.) It then suggested that those who could make educated judgments about such matters, whether for or against Golden Rice, would stand “on good Jewish grounds.”

For the record, Vitamin A deficiency adversely affects the health of tens of millions around the globe, especially pregnant women and children. By some accounts, it is responsible for 500,000 cases of juvenile blindness and up to two million deaths annually. Since the CCAR Responsa was issued, President Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has announced that Golden Rice has received a Patents for Humanity Award, given for its contribution to improving global health and raising the living standards of underserved populations. Apparently, Pope Francis has also blessed Golden Rice.

The RA study addressed considerably more issues than did the CCAR Committee. Like the latter group, RA spent no meaningful time discussing kashrut. It began with a brief review of evolution and a more detailed one concerning recent developments in genetic engineering. In the course of the review, the Committee made several crucial observations.

Initially, the RA recognized that the traditional notion of an initial creation of fully formed species, and “the stability of these species across time,” has become “untenable in the past two centuries.” (At 3-4/49; see also, 21-24/49.) The RA also noted that current life forms not only share common parents, sometimes one species acquires genes from another. The Committee accepted data showing that “as many as 145 genes (from among 20,000 in the human genome) have been picked up from other species.” (At 8/49.)  Further, while acknowledging that continued study is warranted, the RA held that “(g)enetic engineering is a field of great promise in combating hunger and disease,”  and “we are obligated to feed the hungry, heal the ill and to preserve human health.” (At 5, 12/49.)

The RA then proceeded to discuss two methods of halakhik analysis, one based on legal formalism and the other on values-informed interpretation, as they may relate to the field of transgenics.  Noting with approval the Talmudic principle that “stringent positions in halakhah bear the burden of proof,” the RA recognized that one could limit forbidden activities to those precisely prohibited in Torah. (See 30-31/49.)

By contrast, a values-informed analysis looks to the purposes of the laws. (See 33/49.) Here the RA noted that the sages were concerned about blending species out of “respect for the creation.” (At 35/49.) At the same time, while those sages would clearly forbid the act of forming a new hybrid species, it was not clear to the Committee that the sages would prohibit other than full blending, that is, “the transfer of (limited) sequences of DNA from one organism to another.”  (At 37/49.) In any event, as the Committee observed, the sages “were also clear in permitting the produce of (any) such forbidden efforts.” (At 36/49.)

The RA concluded that the Torah’s ban on kilayim “does not extend formally to the modification of gene sequences via the introduction of foreign DNA in order to convey a specific capability in the new organism.”  Cautioning that the “health implications of genetically modified foods must be examined on an individual basis,” it further recognized that “Jews may benefit from the fruits of hybridized plants . . . .” (At 44/49.)

So, there seems to be as much of a consensus as there might ever be when it comes to an understanding of Jewish law as applied to new technology. GM crops, to date, do not raise any serious kashrut issues, nor does the principle of kilayim necessarily preclude either the production or the consumption of GM crops. The only serious issue is whether such foods are safe and beneficial or not, matters best left to scientists than rabbis.

Do new technologies of genetic engineering raise concerns? Sure. Does the application of any new technology to the production and consumption of food products warrant heightened scrutiny? Of course. But after twenty years of increased commercialization, subject to government protocols and reviews, with hundreds of millions of acres of genetically modified crops being produced and consumed, with all the data that has been accumulated and dissected, with all the studies that have been generated, it would seem that the initial reasonable concerns of the past have been addressed and the originally feared scenarios have not materialized.

This conclusion is buttressed by a report published online in 2013 in the Critical Review of Biotechnology. The report concerned a survey of 1,783 research papers and other documents published in the previous decade regarding various aspects of GM crop safety.  Such a meta-survey is important because it avoids problems inherent in cherry-picked data and puts an anomalous result from any single study in proper perspective. The main findings were quite instructive: 1) no significant hazard was detected in connection with the use of GM crops, 2) not a single credible example of a detrimental effect from the consumption of such crops was identified, 3) there was no evidence that GM crops were uniquely allergenic, much less toxic, 4) genetic segments of DNA from GM crops have not been and cannot be integrated into our cells, 5) there was little to no evidence of damage to the environment from biotech crops, and 6) usage of GM crops was less likely to reduce biodiversity than non-GM crops. (See also, here.)

The haters gonna hate and the science deniers gonna deny. Whether the denial of science comes from one end of the political spectrum or the other is irrelevant. It is, by definition, non-rational, and often irrational. It is also counter-productive to the work our tradition teaches we need to do. With the important caveats that new data might warrant different conclusions, and that vigilance is always warranted when our bodies, our food and our environment are involved, reality based Judaism supports the introduction and usage of tested and approved GM crops that help people. It does so because reality based Judaism seeks to address the world as it is, not as it might have been in some ancient mythical garden, nor as it might be in some medieval mystical construct of ten sefirot, nor even as it is experienced in the comfortable confines of academia or similar social bubble, nor, for that matter, as we might like it to be. It does so, not to the exclusion of organic or non-GM crops, but as a useful means to achieve a desired end.

Given the overwhelming consensus on what Judaism permits, the data should drive us, that is, good data from reputable, independent sources, rigorously applying the scientific method (discussed here). And evidence should trump anecdote and ideology every time, whether the issue is abortion, vaccinations or something else.

The writers of the Torah and the ancient sages can be forgiven for some of their assumptions of the nature of our world. They did not have the benefit of our scientific methods or tools. But today, there is no excuse for ignorance, and, when people are hungry or seek relief from disease, there ought not be much room for those who would close the door to the possibility of better health by bending or ignoring the facts in order to conform to some pre-existing political or economic bias. We can do better. We can heed the lesson from another, more traditional seder. Does not the Passover Haggadah call on us to open the door? Does it not read: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat!”?

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