January 19, 2020

Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

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.)

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 “>ten thousand years. “>twentieth century of the common era with the use of nuclear technologies, tissue cultures, haploid breeding and, most recently, “>USDA Economic Research Report 162 (February, 2014) (15/60).) According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “>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 “>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 “>concurs, as does the “>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 “>Monsanto and “>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 “>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 “>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 “>Jewish Renewal movement, advocate of Eco-Judaism and a prolific writer.  A few years ago, Waskow published a “>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 “>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 “>Rabbi Tzvi Freeman concurs. Addressing the issue of genetically modified foods, “>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, “>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 “>lengthy and detailed study by “>Patents for Humanity Award, given for its contribution to improving global health and raising the living standards of underserved populations. Apparently, “>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 “>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, “>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 “>abortion, “>Haggadah call on us to open the door? Does it not read: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat!”?

Another version of this essay was previously published at