GMO or No: Problematic Intersections of Religion, Biotechnology, and Food

Acceptable Genes: Religious Traditions and Genetically Modified Foods
Edited by Conrad G. Brunk and Harold Coward

(SUNY Press, 2009)

Why is genetically modified food an issue for kosher Jews, halal Muslims, and vegetarian Hindus? How do religious beliefs intersect with ethical and moral views on biotechnology? A new collection of essays explores the links between religion, culture, and GMOs.

In their new book, Acceptable Genes: Religious Traditions and Genetically Modified Foods, Conrad G. Brunk and Harold Coward have compiled a unique set of religious, cultural, and indigenous perspectives on genetically modified foods. Many of us are aware of at least some of the ways biotechnology has invaded the supermarket. But dietary practice often intersects with religious faith, and despite the moral and religious convictions about modified foods, these perspectives have been marginalized in public debate. Oddly enough, religious and moral beliefs may carry more weight with lawmakers and industry regulators than consumer attitudes do. Combating the secrecy surrounding GMOs may only be possible with strong religious and moral arguments for equal tolerance and respect in play.

GMO Pros and Cons

GMOs are organisms that contain genetic material from other sources (like a tomato that has been enhanced by animal DNA in a lab) or organisms from which DNA has been removed. Altering an organism’s DNA can affect traits, measurable or observable quantities such as height, weight, color, or behavior; it is crucial to understand that this new genetic material will be inherited by the organism’s offspring. More broadly, GM foods also include any plant infused with genes from other species. The motivations for this type of scientific perversion are multifaceted and varied. In addition to developing “improved” insect-resistant crops, scientists are able to create advanced pharmaceuticals and treatments for conditions including diabetes, hemophilia, and hepatitis. Genetic disorders can be curbed, and perhaps in the future, eradicated.

At the same time, GM foods have caused considerable ethical controversy over the potential for unknown harm. Particularly in Europe, Japan, and parts of Africa, the uproar over untested, unlabeled GM foods in the food supply has been dramatic. Some of the controversy can simply be labeled Luddite resistance. Yet legitimate concerns about food allergens, environmental degradation, crop homogeneity, and the unfair burden placed on small farmers to keep up in a quickly evolving economy defy the impulse to cast all naysayers as technophobes.

In the United States, GM foods remain largely—if not entirely—unlabeled in supermarkets, making it nearly impossible to determine the scientific or man-made origins of your food. Then again, it’s usually safe to assume that non-organic products contain traces of genetically modified corn or soybeans. As of July 2009, the USDA reported that over eighty percent of corn, soybean, and cotton planted areas contain genetically modified varieties of the respective crops.

Non-Vegetarian Plants?

As Brunk and Coward are careful to point out, no religion or moral code is monolithic. Expert scholars may hold different views than lay practitioners of a particular faith. Throughout the book, lay adherents and expert interpreters alike offer perspectives on how GM foods intersect with their religious and ethical dietary traditions. Each author conducted additional focus groups among their respective discipline or tradition. 

In Lyne Létourneau’s dietary overview, vegetarianism is examined as a multifaceted choice. Meat eating is historically conflicted; while consuming meat in some societies is a marker of wealth and class status, in other religious contexts, eschewing flesh consumption is thought to evoke higher consciousness. Splitting her case study into ‘health’ and ‘ethical’ vegetarians, Létourneau argues that most vegetarians (one to 2.5 percent of the US population) choose the lifestyle for health reasons. The “health vegetarians,” according to her, are less ideologically committed to vegetarianism and therefore place less emphasis on organic, non-GM foods than ethical vegetarians. Létourneau’s focus group of ethical vegetarians largely indicated that the transfer of genetic material from animals to plants would violate an animal’s essence and integrity, while additionally causing unknown environmental harm. Through genetic modification, some plants would be rendered non-vegetarian, in a sense. Therefore, both transgenic plant and animal modification—the transfer of animal DNA into plants and vice versa—would require labeling of transgenic organisms to satisfy the group’s ethics. Some of these concerns also emerged in additional religious focus groups for faith that prescribe vegetarianism.

For Jews, there were myriad contradictions in consuming genetically modified foods. Jewish ethics scholar Laurie Zoloth found that among Conservative and Orthodox Jewish focus groups, genetic modification presented little problem, in part because many North Americans participants were largely unaware that they had been consuming transgenic foods. Reform scholars and liberal laypeople presented more opposition. Most participants agreed that food was a central part of Jewish life and agreed that GM foods are technically allowable since they are not specifically forbidden in Jewish texts. But Jewish ethics and kashrut seek to limit overproduction and unnecessary consumption, and genetically modifying animals may constitute hubris in that humans seek to alter God’s perfect creation. Yet while the Mishnah prohibits plant grafting, it does not indicate that Jews cannot use or consume hybrid products or species. When viewed from a health perspective, many Jews surveyed were in favor of genetic modification for therapeutic or medicinal intervention.

Unlike Judaism, Islam has few specific requirements to classify food as inherently good or permissible, and only disallows wine, pork, and its byproducts. The Qur’an states that food is part of living a full life, and caring for one’s physical body—as part of the larger self—is an essential part of salvation. In his essay, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Muslim ethicist Ebrahim Moosa examines the ways that Muslim leaders have thus far treated GMOs has both managed risks and with precaution. The influential Saudi-based Council for Islamic Jurisprudence (CIJ) long ago approved GM products for therapeutic use, but its reasons for doing so have been largely shrouded in secrecy. The CIJ decision paved the way for Muslim religious authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and North America to approve GM foods. In certain Western Muslim communities, the precautionary approach has been one that favors the viewpoints of Muslim-educated scientists over religious leaders.

Muslim ethical teachings provide few guidelines on food safety, but one conventional ideal of Muslim ethics relates to fitra, the preservation of God-given naturalness. Fitra is central to Muslim ethics and spirituality, and though open to interpretation and distortion, it generally refers to innate intuitive ability to discern between right and wrong. Moosa argues that Muslim inability to probe scientific data relating to GMOs and to more actively engage in debates is a product of location. With many Muslim communities located in the developing world, it can be politically disadvantageous to argue with potentially life-saving technology. While science and technology are often presented as a panacea for issues in the Global South, it remains crucial that religious authorities remain pragmatic when determining their positions on such weighty issues.

Most Christian denominations lack specific requirements for food, although a few, like Seventh Day Adventists, eschew pork and certain other animal products. Generally, Christians’ primary association between food and religion is through Holy Communion or the Eucharist, and many associate food and meals with fellowship. Scientist and theologian Donald Bruce attempts to sum up North American Christian perspectives on GMOs and conducted focus groups with Mennonites and Adventists. Bruce also looks at Amish farmers that have embraced GM crop trials as an example of a seemingly technophobic religious community critically examining the potential benefits of biotechnology. Overall, Bruce determines that Christians do not generally oppose GM foods from a religious standpoint. Unlike some other faiths, their individual objections may be instead rooted in personal politics.

Hinduism, because of its diverse communities and pluralistic beliefs, would seem more split on the issue of genetic modification. Instead, Vasudha Narayanan found that because of food’s prominence in dharma texts, it is important to consider various Hindu rituals and traditions surrounding food—feasting and fasting among them—in determining if and when GM food is acceptable. Narayanan does not believe there can be a single authoritarian viewpoint, but varying contextual rules may apply.

In Hinduism, certain foods are also associated with specific characteristics: purity (sattva), sloth and stupor (tamas), and energy and passion (rajas). Based on an individual’s consumption, these characteristics may manifest in the person. Whole foods are essential for character and well-being, but if genetic material were inserted into these otherwise “pure” foods, it might contaminate the soul. Narayanan explains that this, and many other types of segmented Hindu food classification and understandings, would make GM foods appropriate only for certain occasions or ritual use. Similar to dilemmas faced by Muslims in the Global South, some Hindu communities in the developing world have already adopted types of GM grains due to population and food distribution issues.

The Buddha lived in a time when genetic material had not been studied. For that reason, David R. Loy extrapolates on Buddhist teachings to find answers as to whether GM foods would be permissible for Buddhist practitioners. Loy also admits that because Buddhism has such porous boundaries, it can be difficult to find commonality in diverse traditions. Buddhists surveyed by Loy were not so much concerned with the outcome of genetic modification but the motivations behind it. Because everything is connected in Buddhism—human technology is linked to natural phenomenon—it is important to consider if genetic modification will reduce or increase suffering in the world, or dukkha. If the world becomes sick, so will we. It is therefore imperative to avoid creating additional harm in anything we do. Genetic modification is not necessarily harmful, but in order for healthful products to have their intended benefits, it is important that producing them is carried out within healthful social, economic, and ecological frameworks.

In an essay on Indigenous traditions and genetic modification by Shiri Pasternak, Lorenzo Mazgul, and Nancy J. Turner the authors explain that maintenance of traditional food practices keeps people rooted to their past—especially people that have been historically colonized by Christian missionaries and European settlers alike. Corn, for example, is an integral part of Mayan spiritual worldview and ecological practice, believed to be created perfect in its original form by God. For many of the indigenous people surveyed, GM food was outright rejected as an offensive break from natural order and traditional dietary practice. Perhaps not surprisingly, many indigenous people see genetic modification as further colonialism, unregulated capitalist, corporate power, and a few claimed GM food was one more example of cultural genocide.

The only piece that feels contextually misplaced in this collection is Hsiung Ping-chen’s “So That You May Do No Harm: Changing Attitudes Toward Food in Late Imperial China.” While Chinese food policy affects a significant percentage of the world population, it seems problematic to present “Chinese food culture” as a monolithic way of life. The piece looks at concepts like the five elements and yin-yang but lacks a specific spiritual context I expected from the piece. The focus of Ping-chen’s writing is not on spiritual food ritual but on medicinal treatments and food remedies. While it offers a thorough examination of The Book of Congee, I would have appreciated more critical analysis of Chinese food culture as it has descended from Taoism and Buddhism.

Regulating Food, Regulating Identity

In the end, Conrad G. Brunk, Nola M. Ries, and Leslie C. Rodgers lay out guidelines for food labeling in North America. Equating food consumption with sexuality, they posit that both have been strictly regulated throughout history as defining characteristics of religious and spiritual identity. Yet not unlike other individual moral and ethical choices, it can be difficult to explain why some people draw a line at eating GM foods when others do not. The paradoxes displayed in many of the chapters are intriguing, to be sure, but can come coupled with frustration for scientists, researchers, and even other laypeople attempting to distill arguments about GM food into their simplest forms. Yet all of the arguments do all provide one consistent reality: cultural and religious sensitivities to issues around food, consumption, safety, and technology deserve to be taken seriously by regulators and policy makers. For government officials to treat complicated personal beliefs as whims or preferences is disrespectful and rather irresponsible.

To that end, labeling in the United States must be consistent so that all consumers can make the same informed choices. By and large, voluntary labeling has simply not been adopted. The governmental and industry opposition to mandatory labeling has long been rooted in several arguments: that GM labels will signal safety or nutritional problems for consumers only accustomed to seeing nutritional information on labels and should therefore not be included; that labeling would greatly increase production cost due to additional monitoring of facilities, and that labeling would require further definition of terms “GM” and “GM-free.” These supposed concerns about labeling have not stopped the European Union from adopting mandatory labeling. As a result, consumer choice is enhanced and can be based on more thoroughly informed decision-making at an individual level. Most people do not object to labels such as “kosher” or “halal.” Why should another label that aids in personally ethical purchasing and consuming be any different?

Indeed, divergent religious groups can often agree that in order to progress on issues that so greatly impact society, spiritual and cultural traditions must be considered. Hundreds of millions of people around the world practice the religions surveyed in this collection, which should make their preferences all the more salient for legislators. Believers may disagree on many things, but our collective health and well-being, in addition to being informed citizens, is rarely up for debate.

brittany.s.shoot@gmail.com'

Brittany Shoot is an American writer currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Part of the Feminist Review editorial collective, her writing has appeared in various online and print publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and In These Times. A radical feminist and vegan, she counts her grandfathers?a theologian and music minister, respectively?among her most trusted and beloved influences.