Dedicated to Preserving the Safety of Our Food, the Health of Our Environment,
and the Harmony of Our Relationship with Nature
406 West Depot Avenue, Fairfield, Iowa 52556
Prepared by Steven M. Druker
Executive Director, Alliance for Bio-Integrity
(A Concerned Jew)
Permission to reproduce is granted provided that authorship is properly acknowledged.
In recent years, the biotechnology industry has launched a massive enterprise to genetically reconfigure a large portion of the world?s food supply. Hundreds of genetically altered crops and animals are being developed in laboratories, and already several varieties of such foods are on grocery shelves (unlabeled). In most cases, biotechnicians transpose a gene from one species into organisms of another to endow them with a trait they do not ordinarily possess (e.g. human growth gene into salmon to increase their size; flounder gene into beets to make them cold resistant; bacterial gene into corn and potatoes to make them pesticidal). Because this technology is growing so rapidly, because it could in many respects be irreversible, and because an increasing number of Jews (including many rabbis) are concerned that its products are unkosher, it is important there be a comprehensive examination of genetically engineered food in relation to Halakha so that, if necessary, prompt action can be taken to secure labeling and protect Jews from being unknowingly subjected to a broad influx of these altered foods.
From the perspective of Jewish law, there are two basic questions regarding genetically reconfigured foods, the second more general than the first.
Question #1: Do foods that are ordinarily kosher become unkosher when implanted with genes from unkosher animals?
Question #2: In the context of food production, does the artificial transfer of genetic material between species that are naturally prevented from crossbreeding constitute a violation of Halakha (even if both species are kosher)?
Although these are separate questions involving separate sets of considerations, analysis reveals that each case involves significant violations of halakhic principles and that the most reasonable conclusions are:
1. Organisms implanted with genes from non-kosher species are themselves non-kosher and must be avoided.
2. For purposes of food production, transposing genes between species that are naturally prevented from cross-breeding is a high-risk venture that is halakhically unsound (even when both species are kosher). We Jews should speak out against this practice, and we have strong reason to reject its products on religious grounds.
The following paragraphs systematically present the analysis that leads to these conclusions. (It is important to note that this analysis is specifically concerned with genetic engineering in the production of food. It does not deal with genetic engineering in fields such as medicine, which, as will be discussed, is a distinct topic with different considerations.)
Question 1 : What Is the Effect of Genetic Transfers from Non-Kosher Species?
This question involves six important issues (or sub-questions).
A. Is it significant that the substances produced by transposed genes generally comprise less than one part in sixty of the resultant food?
B. Is it significant that the transplanted genes are merely copies of the animal's genes and do not constitute direct transfers of tissue?
C. Is it significant that the transfers involve submicroscopic quantities of matter?
D. Is it significant that these substances are produced within an otherwise kosher organism?
E. Are the medical transplant rulings relevant to transgenic foods?
F. Are there either special benefits or especially high risks that need to be considered?
A. Does the "One in Sixty" Exemption Apply?
In some cases, Halakha 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).
B. Is There a Difference Between Animal Genes and Their Laboratory Copies?
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 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.
Further, genes are important not in terms of the amount of matter they contain but in terms of the information they encode. Genes comprise a minuscule fraction of an organism?s matter. They are sequences of information that direct the development of the organism?s structure and bulk, but in themselves they contribute little to either. Gene replication is primarily the replication of an informational code, not the accumulation of bodily mass. Moreover, this code is operative within any cellular medium -- whatever the species. As long as a laboratory copy fully replicates the structure of a particular gene, that copy can produce the same substances as its counterpart, whether implanted back within its native species or transplanted into a foreign one.
Therefore, the key consideration regarding transplanted genes is not the extent to which they themselves constitute the substance of non-kosher animals, but the extent to which they create it. This will become more evident in the following discussion.
C. Does the Exemption for Microscopic Phenomena Apply?
In modern times, Halakha has developed a rule that microscopic phenomena need not be considered in determining the kosher status of foods. Since genes are submicroscopic entities, it might seem (at first impression) that embedding genes from a non-kosher animal in a fruit or vegetable is halakhically irrelevant. However, analysis indicates otherwise.
In the typical case of admixture, microscopic ingredients cause no discernible effects. For instance, if a microscopic amount of pig tissue is blended into potato soup, both its presence and its effects remain microscopic. The tissue is inert. It does not itself grow, nor does it induce the growth of other porcine substances.
In contrast, a gene that is engineered into a living organism remains dynamically lively. It is present within every cell, and it replicates with every instance of cell division. Moreover, these foreign genes continually induce the synthesis of proteins (and frequently other substances) that are typical of their native species, not the host organism.
Such foreign materials are present in macroscopic quantities. For instance, when soybeans are engineered with a gene from a brazil nut to endow them with a specific protein, that protein is present at the same levels as each of the various soy proteins. If we were to isolate all the nut protein from a pot of engineered beans, we could see it with the naked eye. Further, the protein?s effects are also readily observable, even in a sample of a few beans. Individuals allergic to brazil nuts suffer reactions when they eat the modified soy.
In addition to their sometimes allergenic or toxic effects, the products of transposed genes often cause clearly visible changes within their host. For example, tobacco leaves engineered with a particular gene from a firefly actually glow in the dark. In principle, every transgenic food could likewise be engineered to exhibit a novel, readily visible physiological feature characteristic of a foreign species. In practice, unless such a feature is economically desirable, genes that yield less conspicuous attributes will be employed. Yet, these attributes are still observable, whether the allergic response of humans to nut protein in soybeans or the fatal response of worms to corn with a pesticide-producing bacterial gene.
It therefore seems unreasonable to condone the implantation of non-kosher genes as a purely microscopic phenomenon while ignoring both the macroscopic substances they produce and their clearly observable effects. After all, if a microscopic dose of a particular chemical was lethal, Halakha would forbid the consumption of any food containing such a dose (under the rule that life-endangering substances are not to be eaten). Just as Halakha acknowledges the relevance of any such microscopic dose due to its significant effect, so it should recognize the relevance of the transposed genes. In fact, the case of transposed genes is even more compelling, since they not only induce a significant effect (like the lethal dose of chemical) but they do so by producing visible quantities of non-kosher substances (which the chemical does not).
A hypothetical example more fully illustrates the logical inconsistencies that arise from attempting to apply the microscopic exemption to transgenic organisms. Suppose we create a strain of lentils containing (in every cell) a pig gene that synthesizes a structural porcine protein. We cook a pot of these lentils, and then we extract all the pig protein. This yields a visible quantity. Then we take an equal portion of lentils, grown without a pig gene, and cook them in a second pot. We next isolate an equal amount of the same protein from pig tissue, sprinkle it into the pot, and stir the contents thoroughly. This renders the second pot of porridge unkosher, since we've mixed a visible quantity of pig protein into it. But this seems to entail that the first pot of the porridge (prior to the extraction) was also unkosher. The first pot contained the same amount of pig protein as the second pot. Further, in the first pot, as in the second, the pig protein was an added ingredient. The only difference is that initially, it was added via genetic transplant and subsequently appeared inside each lentil as part of its make-up, while in the final state, it was added in the manner of a spice.
Moreover, it seems there is no basis to exempt the protein on the grounds it is merely an isolated chemical compound. Halakha holds that if either lactose (a milk sugar) or casein (a milk protein) is present (in isolated form) in an otherwise non-dairy mixture, they retain their dairy character and the mixture cannot be served with meat. This entails that isolated pig protein retains its porcine character.
D. Does It matter that the host organism belongs to a kosher species?
So if proteins from non-kosher animals in transgenic fruits and vegetables are to be condoned, it will have to be on the grounds that they were generated within an otherwise kosher organism. But such grounds are shaky. For instance, if a fertilized pig ovum were implanted within a cow?s uterus and the resultant piglet successfully brought to term, it?s doubtful Halakha would deem it kosher, even though it was produced within a kosher animal and the initial transfer from a non-kosher species was at the microscopic level. Further, in light of the rulings on lactose and casein, generating the isolated proteins of a non-kosher animal instead of the entire animal does not in itself preclude halakhic concern.
It seems the only way to exempt transgenic foods is to argue that when foreign genes have become embedded in the host organism's cellular nuclei to the extent that their products are synthesized by its cellular machinery, these products effectively belong to and are characteristic of that organism rather than their source species. (This argument has been advanced by biotech proponents and largely accepted by the authorities at both the Orthodox Union and OK Labs.) However, attempting to conceptually sever the link between a species and its transplanted genes runs afoul of the facts. Consider a virus, a strand of DNA that has no surrounding cell of its own and is dormant until it invades the nuclei of another organism's cells and appropriates the cellular mechanisms. Many viruses even insert themselves into the host's DNA strand. Only within and by virtue of the host's cells can a virus synthesize its proteins. Yet, it would strain the bounds of logic to argue that these proteins are those of the host organism. Although they are produced by genes operating within the organism's cellular nuclei and making use of its cellular resources, they do not belong to it. They are debilitating and often life-endangering to the host, and its immune system recognizes them as a foreign threat and strongly counteracts them. 
Therefore, we can only deny the connection between a species and the products of its transplanted genes if we are also prepared to deny the concept of viral infection. If we treat proteins from pig genes implanted in apples as those of an apple and not of a pig, we must also declare that a virus-infected apple is merely undergoing an adverse reaction to its own proteins. We would further have to say that when NIH researchers spliced the AIDS virus into the genome of mice, the subsequent suffering of their offspring was entirely due to a hereditary defect in mouse genes.
Moreover, not only can the products of implanted genes be perceived as foreign by their host, they continue to be recognized by members of the source species as their own. That is why pigs whose organs are destined for transplant in humans are engineered with human genes that cause their organs to be coated with molecules characteristic of humans. This reduces the likelihood that the human physiology will reject the organ as a foreign intrusion.
Finally, repudiating the relationship between products of transposed genes and their source species would negate the possibility of effective labeling. For instance, the FDA has determined that known allergens, like brazil nut protein, must be labeled when they occur within a transgenic food. But if a pig protein in engineered soy beans is classified as soy-sourced rather than porcine, then brazil nut protein would have to be treated the same. This would entail the paradox that although soy beans with brazil nut genes provoke allergic response in people sensitive to brazil nut protein, identifying them as containing this protein would be a case of mislabeling.
Thus, if Halakha is to do justice to biological reality, it cannot conceptually disassociate proteins from the genes that produce them and genes from the species that naturally harbor them. The products of genes transposed into foods continue to express essential attributes of their native species and are clearly distinguishable from those of their host -- as is amply indicated by the examples of glowing tobacco, pesticide-producing corn, and beans that aggravate brazil nut allergies. Only by ignoring such facts can kinship be contrived between an organism and a distinctly foreign gene that's forcibly inserted within it.
E. Are the Medical Transplant Rulings Relevant to Transgenic Foods?
The halakhic rulings that have permitted transplant of tissue from non-kosher species into humans do not readily apply to genetically engineered food. For one thing, such transplants can be justified on the basis that death or serious impairment would otherwise result. Accordingly, the ruling that a transplanted organ becomes part of the host must be seen in this light and should be limited to such extreme circumstances. Classifications of kosher versus unkosher food cannot be properly made in such a context, since when life is clearly at stake (e.g. one is starving), eating non-kosher food is permissible. Therefore, just because Halakha treats a pig intestine transplanted into a critically ill human being as part of that person's physiology does not entail that it should treat pig proteins engineered into apples as fruit protein.
Further, even though transplanted organs can, for some medical purposes, be viewed as part of the host organism, there are other contexts in which Halakha would probably treat them as representative of their source. For instance, if a pig liver were transplanted into a cow, which a month later was slaughtered, it's doubtful the liver could rightly be sold as kosher.
F. Are There Special Benefits or Especially High Risks?
Do genetically engineered foods have such life-saving potential that they can be accepted on the same basis as transplanted organs? While there are some medical applications of genetic engineering that might well be condoned under this principle, it's difficult to make the case that genetically altered food products should be as well. Although proponents of the process claim it can avert famines and significantly improve the general level of nutrition in the Third World, many scientific experts (several of them from the Third World) disagree with the projected level of benefits and instead emphasize the high level of risks associated with this new and relatively untested technology. Some of these risks are unique to genetic engineering, such as the irreversibility of many of its effects. The potential scale of this irreversibility has been termed "awesome" by Erwin Chargaff, often referred to as the father of molecular biology.
In the next section, which more thoroughly examines risks and benefits, it will become clear that the use of genetic engineering in food production is a far different matter than its use in medicine and cannot at this stage of our knowledge be categorized as a necessary health measure. Accordingly, the non-kosher admixtures it produces cannot be exempted on such a basis.
Conclusion Regarding Genes from Prohibited Species
Therefore, in light of all the above considerations, it seems most reasonable to conclude that genes transposed from non-kosher species into otherwise kosher ones will, through the products they synthesize, imbue their host organisms with a non-kosher character. However, there is still the question of whether cross-species gene transplant for purposes of food production is in itself contrary to Halakha, even when it?s restricted to kosher organisms.
Question 2: Is it Proper to Sunder the Species Boundaries?
In the written Torah, the main verse relating to hybridization is VaYikra (Leviticus)19:19. It specifically forbids mating domestic animals of one species with those of another. It also forbids sowing a field with two types of seeds. According to the oral Torah, this crossbreeding prohibition extends to untamed beasts and fowl, as well as to several cases of grafting one kind of vegetation to another.
How does this verse relate to transgenic foods -- foods produced by combining DNA between species that are naturally prevented from cross-breeding? If we interpret it in the manner of Ramban, it seems to bar such trans-species alterations. According to Ramban, each species represents a special force and tampering with their boundaries can cause unfathomable harm. Because he was only considering crosses through naturally permitted pathways (as in creating a mule), it's likely he would have regarded genetic transfers between species that are naturally prevented from crossbreeding as a far more severe violation of the divine order, since it breaks down more fundamental boundaries. Accordingly, in an approach such as his, both the manufacture and consumption of transgenic foods would be prohibited.
Yet, Ramban's position is not that of the majority. Rather, in what has come to be the majority opinion, the laws against crossbreeding are neither universal nor enforceable. They apply only to Jews, and no penalty is linked to their breach. Further, these laws are classed among those that transcend human reason, and therefore the majority holds that they are not to be extended beyond their particulars.
Given this interpretation, several rabbis argue that the kilayim (hybridization) laws cannot be used to bar genetically engineered foods. Moreover, some go even further and suggest that because these laws do not specifically forbid genetic engineering, they therefore permit it. This conclusion seems unwarranted. For one thing, it?s difficult to imagine how the Torah could have conveyed a prohibition against transgenic foods. Only within the last fifty years have humans come to understand the nature and structure of genes, and only within the last thirty has the possibility of splicing genes between dissimilar species been seriously entertained. Within the context of Biblical language, it would have been very difficult to differentiate between the macro units of reproduction (sperm and ova) and the micro units (the genes within the sperm and ova), especially given humanity?s long-standing ignorance of molecular genetics. The Torah would have had to say something like: "Do not mix the seed of creatures that cannot mate" -- which instead of creating a meaningful ban on transgenic manipulations, would have spawned deep confusion. Thus, Vayikra 19:19 cannot be construed as indirectly permitting transgenic foods.
Further, the verse provides substantial grounds for questioning the permissibility of transgenic technology, since it clearly indicates the Torah's concern with upholding species integrity. As the Rikanti has noted, the fact that no reason is given for the kilayim laws does not entail an absence of underlying reason. Further, he says we can infer from them a duty not to alter the way the Creator established creation.
Moreover, because modern gene splicing is a far more radical form of hybridization than traditional cross-breeding (as will be discussed), the majority?s lenient attitude toward the latter does not necessarily apply in such an unprecedented case. Accordingly, one could reasonably conclude that genetic engineering is a greater wrong than the practices prohibited by the kilayim laws and that its products can therefore be prohibited. So, while the kilayim laws cannot be justly interpreted as permitting transgenic foods, they can be viewed as implicitly prohibiting them. Additionally, even disregarding these laws, there are other sound halakhic grounds for opposing such engineered hybrids.
Considering Logic as a Basis
It seems that logic itself provides a strong basis for rejecting transgenic technology and its products. In many instances the Sages based laws on logical deduction (sevarah) even without specific scriptural proof. Moreover, in Talmudic method, logical reasoning precedes scriptural proof and the latter is turned to only when logic is insufficient. Reliance on logic was especially important when new situations arose.
As noted, genetic engineering represents a radically new situation. Even if the kilayim laws are held to provide no definitive scriptural guidelines in regard to it, guidelines do exist within Talmudic logic, and transgenic foods contravene them. For instance, the rabbis established the requirement of grace before meals on the logical principle that it is forbidden to derive benefit from the world without first expressing gratitude to its Creator, who is the ultimate provider of the benefit. If we must gratefully recognize the Creator of the world before consuming its foods, it follows that we should be mindful of Him before attempting to derive benefit by redesigning the genome of these foods.
Proper respect for the Creator and His creation dictates that any human endeavor to transpose DNA across the natural species boundaries (mixing genetic material between creatures that are biologically distant and dissimilar) be governed by humility and systematic caution. The radical nature of such genetic engineering must be appreciated and special care be exercised. Humanity needs to recognize that these trans-species manipulations represent, in the words of Nobel laureate biologist George Wald, "the biggest break in nature that has occurred in human history." We should further recognize that the genetic blueprints at the core of the biosphere are intricate creations of a purposeful and infinite intelligence. Accordingly, we are obliged to acknowledge that when limited human intelligence attempts extensive reconfiguration of these blueprints for life, the results are inherently unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. This is especially so in light of how irreversible are the effects of genetic engineering and how little we comprehend the workings of our biosphere. As a Harvard biology professor notes, "We understand the forces that hold ecosystems together less than we understand what holds atomic particles together."
Therefore, a genetically engineered organism should not be released into the environment unless the safety of doing so has been scientifically established, nor should its use as food be permitted without likewise establishing its safety in this respect. Given the unprecedented nature and power of genetic engineering, these are reasonable (and minimal) requirements -- a similar burden of proof has for years been imposed on new food additives produced through conventional methods.
However, genetically altered organisms are being released in the fields and marketed to consumers without reliable confirmations of safety. Further, the lax manner in which this massive enterprise to genetically reconfigure the world's edible plants and animals is being conducted poses substantial risk of compromising food safety, destroying natural balance, and disrupting the integrity of G-d's creation. Although many scientists actively engaged in (and profiting from) this venture claim the potential risks are modest and manageable, numerous distinguished members of the scientific community are increasingly warning that the risks are profound and could lead to irreversible ecological disaster. For instance, The Union of Concerned Scientists, representing 90,000 members, has called for a moratorium on the commercial release of genetically engineered organisms. So has a report by 25 eminent scientists including microbiologists, ecologists, and the Director of the Max-Planck Institute. Their report deplores the lack of adequate safety testing and cautions that genetically engineered organisms could endanger the health of the consumer, substantially reduce biodiversity, and otherwise imperil the environment.
Many proponents of biotechnology argue that more stringent testing is unnecessary because genetically engineered organisms are essentially similar to their naturally occurring counterparts. The administrative agencies of the United States government, which for several years have been active promoters of genetic engineering, adopted this premise in deciding that, as a rule, genetically altered foods are presumed to be safe and do not require the extensive testing that is standard for novel food additives.
This assumption of essential equivalence is unsound on both scientific and theological grounds. Scientists are increasingly recognizing how complex is the behavior of genes. Genes often have multiple functions, and a gene that's selected for one may possess others that are problematic for the host organism. Further, even if the direct effects are positive, the side effects may not be. Genes influence one another in complex ways, and a gene from a foreign species could cause unexpected problems within a new host environment, inducing subtle imbalances that translate into toxicity or carcinogenicity. This is especially so because the foreign genes disrupt the region of DNA into which they wedge -- and biotechnicians cannot control where they end up. This creates a risk that one or another important biochemical process could be disturbed. Disruptions could also result from the unnatural manner in which the transplanted genes get expressed. Because they are foreign to their new surroundings, they cannot function without a big artificial boost. And because this unnatural boosting is continual, it causes the transplanted genes to act independently of their host organisms' intricate control system, unlike any of the native genes. Consequently, not only does an inserted gene produce substances that have never been in its host species before -- it produces them in an essentially unregulated manner.
Many scientists caution that under the current regulatory policy (which does not require long-term testing), deleterious changes in food that may result from the new gene splicing techniques cannot be reliably detected, especially since the negative effects on human health could have substantial latency periods.
Moreover, not only can the internal environment of the engineered organism respond in unpredictable ways, so can the external ecosystem. For instance, researchers have discovered that when plants are engineered to resist viruses, the viruses sometimes mutate into new, more potent forms, or forms that instead attack other plant species. And a breed of bacteria engineered to produce ethanol from crop waste destroyed the soil's fertility. Seeds planted where there were residues of this bacterium grew three inches and then fell over dead.
Besides resting on an overly simplistic view of how genes function within an organism, the doctrine of essential equivalence also relies on a superficial assessment of how they transfer between organisms. To support the claim that genetically modified organisms are essentially the same as their natural counterparts, proponents of genetic engineering routinely argue that it is similar to traditional selective breeding. They insist that because both processes convey desired genes from one organism into another, they are kindred technologies and should not be seen as substantially distinct. Rather, they say, genetic engineering should be understood as a simple extension of traditional practice. In this vein, Dr. Henry I. Miller, who for many years was director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, recently asserted in a newspaper op-ed piece that there is "a seamless continuum" between cross-species genetic engineering and traditional techniques of selective breeding and that "... the newest techniques of biotechnology are no more than a refinement of earlier ones applied for centuries...."
Such arguments either ignore or insufficiently appreciate several important facts. Traditional methods rely on sexual reproduction through naturally available pathways whereas biotechnology circumvents nature's reproductive barriers by forcibly splicing genes into foreign contexts. While conventional practice combines genes from within one species or between species that are closely related, genetic engineers routinely transpose DNA between species that are biologically distant, mating a moth gene with those of a potato, or splicing human genes into fish and pigs.
Because genetic engineering breaches nature's crossbreeding boundaries, its consequences are unlike those of traditional methods. To a large extent, traditional breeding does not introduce new genes into the organisms it modifies. Rather, it merely replaces one version of a particular gene with another version of that same gene. And when it does introduce new genes, they come from species with similar gene pools. In contrast, genetic engineering abruptly endows species with genes they've never had, genes that frequently derive from biologically distant forms. Research reveals that as DNA is transposed across these biological chasms, there tend to be unexpected and bizarre results -- of a type that do not arise from traditional breeding.
Moreover, compared to natural techniques, genetic engineering is precariously imprecise. Ordinarily, genes are arranged in a set pattern. Particular genes are always grouped together (within structures called chromosomes), and the sequence of these genes is also fixed. In sexual reproduction, this set pattern is maintained. Genes are transferred only in the context of complete chromosomes, preserving their sequence intact. On the other hand, genetic engineering separates single genes from their chromosomal context and splices them into entirely new ones. Further, it does so haphazardly. As previously mentioned, the placement of the foreign genes cannot be controlled and where they lodge is purely a matter of chance.
Therefore, genetic engineering is a major deviation from the time-tested techniques of selective breeding. To portray them as similar is scientifically unfounded. The fact that a man who directed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology asserts there is "seamless continuity" between the two methods, and that this view is shared by most of those who are entrusted with developing and regulating genetic engineering, provides additional cause for concern about the program's safety.
Such thinking also reveals that the endeavor is being conducted without a proper reverence for G-d. Those who perform biotechnology need to bear in mind that Almighty G-d is the creator of life, the author of its genetic code, and the institutor of the cross-breeding barriers that tightly regulate what varieties of genes can appear within a particular species. Before embarking on a major venture to sunder these barriers and radically rewrite the genetic program of numerous creatures, human beings must first do all we reasonably can to understand and prudently control the full effects of our actions -- especially given our limited capacity to comprehend the intricacies of G-d's creative design. At minimum, our experimental organisms should be subjected to the highest testing standards that exist for more conventional products.
Unfortunately, this is not occurring. As noted, because bioengineers and their governmental promoters assume that organisms with randomly inserted genes from distant and dissimilar species are safer to eat than a new food additive produced by conventional means, they do not subject them to the standard longitudinal testing required for the latter. This is an affront to the Creator of life.
The extent of this affront -- and of the arrogance that underlies it -- is revealed by the example of computer programming. When software engineers add code to an existing program, they test to see whether they have inadvertently disrupted its function. These tests include even those parts of the system that their intervention was not designed to affect. Given the nature of such systems, they recognize that the addition of even a small amount of new information can have unforeseen consequences. Further, the more that an unexpected change could endanger human life (as in the case of an airplane guidance system), the more rigorous the testing.
Compared to even the most elaborate man-made software system, the genetic program of a living organism is vastly more complex and vastly less comprehended by limited human intelligence. Moreover, unanticipated side effects in reprogramming the genetic structure of the food supply could have disastrous consequences for human health. Accordingly, bioengineering of food should at minimum be conducted with the same standard of care that is followed when re-engineering life-critical computer software. For bioengineering, this standard entails long-term clinical feeding tests, since only such testing can assure that deleterious imbalances have not been generated by the random insertion of foreign genes. Yet, the promoters of genetic engineering (in both the public and private sectors) have summarily assumed we can repattern the divinely created blueprints of life with far greater confidence than when revising a computer program created by the human brain, and scores of genetically reconfigured foods are being rushed to market absent the type of testing we routinely require when altering the work of our own hands. Moreover, not only does FDA policy fail to subject genetically altered foods to the same standard of testing that the FAA mandates for aircraft software, it even refuses to subject them to the less stringent standards imposed on novel food additives produced through conventional means. This reveals not only a reckless disregard of sound scientific practice, but a brazen disrespect for the Creator.
Thus, the attitude that underlies and characterizes the endeavor (as currently conducted) to genetically reconfigure food organisms is opposed to the reverential attitude required by Talmudic logic before we utilize food for our benefit. Moreover, the failure to apply adequate testing procedures also violates the halakhic principle that we should follow the established standards of science in matters of health and safety. As noted, the regulatory policy on transgenic foods significantly rests on the assumptions (a) that genetic engineering is essentially no different than traditional selective breeding and (b) that transgenic organisms are substantially the same as their natural counterparts. The first assumption is untenable and, given the current paucity of testing, the second is largely metaphysical. It is halakhically unsound to allow such assumptions to substitute for rigorous testing -- especially since neither reflects an appreciation that the genetic code and the crossbreeding barriers are basic features of a divine plan.
General Conclusions and Recommendations
As previously noted, in the case of organisms implanted with genes of unkosher animals, the soundest conclusion is that they themselves are unkosher. Accordingly, it is necessary that systematic labeling be mandated so that foods derived from or containing such organisms can be identified and avoided.
Regarding transgenic foods in general, there is strong basis to rule that, as a class, they are halakhically unacceptable. Not only do the laws of kilayim point to their undesirability, the trend of Talmudic logic is against them. Whereas the Talmud mandates appreciation of and respect for G-d as the ultimate creator and provider of all foods, the enterprise to genetically engineer food (as currently conducted) arrogantly assumes that human intelligence can sunder the natural crossbreeding boundaries and radically restructure the genetic programs of living organisms with greater certitude than when amending a man-made computer code. Further, it refuses to recognize the radical nature of its interventions in the natural order and insists they are minor refinements of traditional and natural techniques. Consequently, it is proceeding without adequate safety testing, which not only affronts the Almighty but violates the halakhic dictate to rely on the best standards of science.
Of course, while it does seem appropriate (and obligatory) to prohibit the consumption of foods with genes from nonkosher species, such a prohibition is probably not mandated where transfers occur between kosher species. This is because the majority position on kilayim does not prohibit eating the products of prohibited practices (as long as they are otherwise kosher).
However, the fact that there is no mandate to prohibit the consumption of these transgenic foods does not imply that we Jews should accept them. Rather, because the genetic engineering of food clearly violates important halakhic principles, we should speak out against it and should attempt to avoid purchasing and consuming transgenic products. Further, the authorities should acknowledge that many Jews do already wish to take the step of avoiding transgenic foods on halakhic grounds -- in the same way they would avoid meat that, while technically permissible, is not glatt kosher. They should also realize that this belief is sure to become stronger and more widespread as Jews increasingly learn the facts about genetically engineered foods and recognize the degree to which the enterprise is based on assumptions, attitudes and practices so squarely opposed to Jewish principles. Accordingly, the authorities should demand comprehensive labeling of all genetically engineered foods in order to protect the rights of Jews to avoid them.
An informative and fair system of labeling is not impractical, nor would it be unreasonably burdensome. Although it would entail segregation of transgenic crops at every step of the processing chain, this is already being done in the case of organic foods. Further, the Novartis corporation, one of the largest biotech firms, supports such labeling. According to a Reuter's report of February 24, 1997, the company's head of agribusiness stated that "he believes in the consumer's right to choose" and that "the industry could not 'reasonably argue' against labels facilitating this choice." Moreover, the European Union now requires labeling. Only the United States and a few other countries with strong biotech industries are resisting the trend.
In any event, the importance of upholding religious
principle far outweighs whatever economic considerations are involved.
We Jews should always define and defend our principles based on the highest
 Even cancerous cells, which are mutations of the organism's own cells, are treated by its immune system as an inimical foreign presence. When a cell's genes become dangerously distorted, they and their products are, as a functional matter, no longer those of the host.
 Chargaff, E. Heraclitean Fire, Rockefeller University Press (1978) p.183.
 Cardozo, N.T.L. The Infinite Chain, Targum (1989) p. 161; e.g. Kiddushin 13b.
 Schimmel, H.C. The Oral Law, Feldheim (1987) p. 51; Berakhot 35a.
 Wald, G. quoted in Kimbrell, A., The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life, Harper Collins (1994) p. 159.
 Wilson, E.O. quoted in The Last Harvest: The Genetic Gamble that Threatens to Destroy American Agriculture. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1995).
 Union of Concerned Scientists, Perils Amidst the Promise, 1993.
 The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering: A Statement by Scientists Concerned about Current Trends in the New Biotechnology. Third World Network, (1995)
 Greene, A.E. and Allison, R.F. "Recombination Between Viral RNA and Transgenic Plant Transcripts," Science 263: 1423-1425 (1994).
 "OSU Study Finds Genetic Altering of Bacterium Upsets Natural Order," The Oregonian, August 8, 1994.
 Miller, Henry, I. "Happy Earth Day, Mr.Rifkin," Washington Times, April 22, 1997.
 Presentation by Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, Dec. 15, 1996 (stating the principle, but not specifically in reference to transgenic foods).
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