When the only kosher agency to certify organic food for the USDA announced last month that it will no longer grant kosher certification for products that contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms), it had me wondering: What is the relationship between kosher food and health?
Traditionally, not much — at least not where the label’s concerned.
“Poison can be given a kosher heksher,” Natural Food Certifiers founder and director, Rabbi Reuven Flamer told me over the phone.
“Kashrus has nothing to do with health, at least not physical health. If meat went bad you shouldn’t eat it because it’s not healthy, not because it’s not kosher. It’s two different realms,” he added.
Launched in 1997, NFC’s first certification, Apple K, was based on the principle that “If it’s kosher, it’s good for the soul; if it’s naturally healthy it’s good for the body, and each should have the other,” the website says. “Rejecting products that contain GMOs for kosher certification is a logical addition to our kosher supervision.”
One of the primary claims which opponents of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) make is that there is a blatant lack of transparency both from biotech corporations and the federal government when it comes to the mechanisms in place for their approval by the FDA and the full impact of GMOs. There often appears to be “back-room dealings” with only a few people “in the know” making huge decisions that affect each and every one of us. Part of this may be specific to Big Agriculture and biotech companies, but to a large degree this is also an inherent part of our federal legislative processes. Part of congressional procedure includes a mode of lawmaking informally known as a ‘rider,’ an amendment to an appropriation bill that fundamentally and permanently changes the law governing the program which is funded by the bill. Many times, and usually without widespread public knowledge, lawmakers will amend congressional legislation with sometimes unrelated provisions as a means of changing governmental policy without the time and energy of a vote on the floor for that specific program. Recently, a rider was attached to the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 which, in effect, deregulates federal oversight on biotech food products even if such products are found to be dangerous.
While media coverage has been typically quiet regarding the labeling of food produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the issue has been gaining some traction in the political arena on the federal level with Colorado Congressman Jared Polis’ recent announcement of a federal GMO labeling bill (where Hazon’s own Becky O’Brien issued her words of support. However, while the Colorado representative is attempting to bring this matter to the halls of Congress, his own state legislature recently followed the voters of California’s lead and voted against mandated labeling of GMOs in Colorado.
Meanwhile, the Maine State Legislature has also taken on the issue of mandating GMO foods in the marketplace with striking tri-partisan support, believing that labeling is in everyone’s best interest — from the consumer to the farmer, from the producers to the manufacturers.
For many consumers, even those comfortable purchasing and consuming GM products, there is something “different” about creating transgenic animals for human consumption. When people are confronted with the idea of genetically modified animals many think of Dolly, the famous sheep who was the first successful clone of a living animal. One of the first arguments against both cloning and genetically modifying animals is that scientists are “playing God.” However, in the 21st century, our society is used to other invasive measures which, at other points in human development, may have also been viewed as “playing God,” such as surgeries, birth control and fertility treatments. While the idea of “playing God” may be a compelling reason in some religious communities why humans should abstain from certain acts of which we are intellectually capable, this argument may not hold as much water in the Jewish religion. It could even be argued that Judaism encourages us to “play God;” or perhaps Judaism envisions these human innovations as “playing with God,” rather than pretending to be God.
Despite being a California ballot initiative (Prop 37) in this year’s election, the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is rarely spoken about by our politicians or media outlets. Whatever one’s opinion of GMOs planted in fields and put in the marketplace, it is a matter that affects the entire planet. Whether or not one lives in a country which grows GMO crops, or personally chooses to purchase or consume GMOs, we are all affected by their existence. GMO crops have been shown to cross-fertilize with native plant species, feral canola (rapeseed) has been found in North Dakota and Canada. As the global acreage dedicated to GMO crops expands, the number of nations curtailing or banning production of GMO crops also slowly increases. While countries such as Ireland or Bolivia are opting to grow only non-GMO crops, from 2009-2010 there was a 10% increase in the global acreage used to grow GMO crops. New GMO crops such as sugar cane – and GMO crops created years ago such as vitamin enhanced rice – are likely to soon be introduced into the marketplace. Recently the FDA considered approving GMO salmon to be allowed in the marketplace, however there has never been a genetically modified animal with regulatory approval for marketplace consumption. Needless to say, all of these things have, at the very least, the potential for significant impact on the planet and our lives.
Out here in California, there’s a policy debate heating up about the labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs). Take the fantastical glow-in-the-dark potatomade with jellyfish genes, for example. Scientists claim that by reading the fluorescence on the leaves of this engineered potato, farmers can reduce water usage by glowing when they are ripe. Proposition 37 on the November ballot would require any food containing GMOs like this potato, to sport a special label. According to the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit pushing the passage of Prop. 37, major food companies have spent close to $24 million to defeat the effort. Even so, foodie activists are gearing up for a big fight in November. So what is all the fuss about? What does Judaism say about GMOs, and, is there a Jewish position on labeling?
In 1973 Stanley Cohen was the first to take a gene out of one bacterium and place it in another. His work led to the development of genetic engineering, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1986. Since then, the genetic manipulation of DNA has been nothing short of a Copernican revolution in science and technology. It’s true of food as well. In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that said genetically engineered crops are good for farmers and the planet. These crops pose many dangers, however—including health implications, reduction of diversity and the possibility of cross-contamination with non-GMO plants.
On April 2, food activists in California won their first victory in their campaign to require mandatory labeling for food with GMOs: genetically modified organisms. The Committee for the Right to Know announced that they had collected the 800,000 signatures necessary to establish a 2012 ballot initiative so that voters can have their say on the issue next fall.
With nearly 80% of conventional corn and soy in America containing genetic material from other species designed to help them resist pesticides, it’s difficult to avoid these so-called “Frankenfoods,” unless they are clearly labeled. Across the European Union, GM food must be labeled, but not so in the US.
On Yom Kippur this year, I felt my ancestors calling me more than ever before. Normally I spend Yom Kippur in synagogue, but this year I did my t’shuvah (repentance) on the road, walking through neighborhoods, cities and country landscapes as part of the Right2Know March to get genetically modified (GM) foods labeled. As I fasted and marched alongside 50 other people — some fasting, some not — I felt deeply moved and spiritually motivated to share my Yom Kippur journey and determination to label GM foods with other Jews.
In America today, there is no way to know if we are eating foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Right2Know March is built of a community of organizations, businesses and individuals who are walking to the White House with a simple message: label our food that contains GMOs. The march started on October 1 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and is arriving in Washington, DC on World Food Day, October 16. We are walking 313 miles because we are deeply concerned about the health and environmental risks of GM foods and believe that everyone has the right to know what is in their food. As a Jew, I believe that GM foods are not kosher and are not in line with how the Torah teaches us to take care of the earth.
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