In ancient Israel, farmers brought offerings of wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates and olives to the Temple in Jerusalem. "Food is a source of connection provided by God," says Ramona Rubin, a soft-spoken environmental educator. "It's the manna that sustains; in that sense, the table is the altar."
Rubin is trying to educate Jewish consumers on what she considers to be a serious recent threat to their health and to their faith: the dangers of consuming genetically engineered food. The former cultural ecology student represents a growing number of people within the Jewish community who have religious objections to genetically engineered food. Their concerns are driving a national debate over what stance Jews should take.
"GE contradicts the spirit of creation -- there are definite reasons for concern," she says.
Genetic engineering, commonly known as GE, is the practice of altering the genetic blueprints of plants and animals to create new varieties of foods and seeds. In the United States, over 60 million acres of GE crops are being cultivated, including 40 percent of the nation's soybean crop and 25 percent of its corn. As much as 70 percent of the processed food currently found in American supermarkets -- including infant formula, corn chips, margarine, ice cream and ready-made meals -- contains genetically engineered ingredients. (In Europe, government officials have largely rejected biotechnology's introduction into their nation's food supply.)
Genetic engineering works like this: Genes from nonrelated species, such as insect, fish or human genes, are inserted into those of plants to enhance growth rates or reduce the susceptibility of crops to damage from frost or pests. GE producers have stressed its incredible potential for improving crop yields by making plants more resistant to pests and disease. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration declared that genetically engineered foods would not be treated differently from naturally produced foods -- no additional safety tests, no regulatory restraints and no labeling requirements.
Multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis have since invested billions of dollars in creating and marketing new crops. Swiss-based Novartis has poured $25 million into the University of California at Berkeley for plant research. While those concerned with biotech's ethical and environmental implications -- such as environmentalists and those within the religious community -- have begun to question its safety, professor Andrew Jackson, chair of the university's department of plant and microbial biology, feels the public lacks the scientific background to understand biotech. "Scientists haven't been able to educate the public as well as they would like," he says. "There are risks and benefits in everything you choose to do. When it comes to food technology, I think it has been difficult for [scientists] to get their point across."
Initially, within the Jewish community, GE and the issue of kashrut -- whether or not something is kosher -- was a great concern. Would something such as a vegetable spliced with pig genes remain kosher? Although a number of mainstream groups, including the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the Cornell Kosher Food Initiative, have since ruled that GE foods are, indeed, kosher -- due to the genes being so small as to be "trivial" by kosher law, religious objections still persist.
"In the Torah, there's the idea of the sanctity of boundaries between species," Rubin says, referring to the passage in Leviticus 19:19 that states, "You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed." Rubin explains that the difference between breeding -- a natural selection process between like species -- and genetic engineering -- the deliberate insertion of genes between dissimilar species and one that would never occur in nature -- is great. "We are supposed to protect these different types of creatures that have evolved," she says, "not dilute their genetic materials through random interaction."
Other theological objections lie in the Torah's commandments -- or mitzvot -- to take care of the natural world, respect its integrity and ultimately, to refrain from playing God. "The injunction at the beginning of Genesis where the world is given to Adam and he is told to subdue it -- in that sense it is our obligation to make the world a better place," says orthodox Rabbi Jacob Traub. "The people involved in bioengineering probably feel they are making the world better -- they are taking corn that normally feeds four and feeding 400. Who's to say they're not doing God's work? On the other hand, we're possibly fooling around with Frankenstein."
As Rubin sees it, genetic engineering is a monster still in its infancy, and current splicing techniques are both inexact and unpredictable, making them potentially dangerous. "There's this misconception that GE is something we understand, but it's not," she says. "When we insert a new genetic sequence, it's haphazard; we have no control where it goes."
Critics believe that genetically engineered crops could potentially harm the environment by allowing random genetic pollution between GE and non-GE crops.
Recently, genetically engineered corn named StarLink, which has not been approved for human consumption, showed up in batches of Western Family Foods taco shells, which had to be pulled from store shelves. Western Family Foods Inc. sells its products under six labels to over 3,500 stores based in 23 states. StarLink was also found in taco shells produced by Kraft, sold under the Taco Bell name, and those made by Mission Foods in Texas and distributed under several brand names, including Safeway. The farmers who planted the corn said they weren't told it must be grown and stored separately from other crops, and in one case a farmer mixed StarLink corn with that of other varieties -- about 50,000 bushels in all -- which now must be sold as animal feed.
Because federal law does not require labeling of genetically engineered products, Rubin wants to develop an eco-kosher label based on the idea of shmirat haguf, or safeguarding one's health, to help Jews and other consumers identify non-GE food. "Labels would make a phenomenal difference in increasing consciousness," says David Kupfer, an environmental consultant and organic farmer who is also a member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. "It's important to give people the option to consider [GE's] implications. When people are educated about the issue, I'm sure they'll choose organic."
Kupfer also thinks the StarLink scare helped underline how widespread genetically engineered food already is and how crucial the need is for labels. "What StarLink brings home is that there is no accountability by government agencies, and the food companies we trust do not deserve that trust," he says.
But Scott Thenell, director of regulatory affairs at DNA Plant Technology, believes the StarLink episode did not pose a great public risk. Thenell, whose company is developing genetically engineered strawberries, says he fed Starlink taco shells to his family because he has confidence in the industry. "We've been consuming biotech foods [in the United States] for several years without dire consequences," he says. "Biotech is a powerful technology with tremendous benefits. I have a strong sense that the technology will be well accepted -- the market will decide."
Food For Thought
The Torah is nearly 6,000 years old. While there is no direct mandate on genetic engineering within its pages, many in the Jewish community feel that its basic teachings are straightforward: Safeguard the Earth. "Ethically, the balance lies between developing genetically engineered food and genetics as a science to help save the planet and knowing how this will individually impact our health," says reform Rabbi Sydney Mintz, a representative from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Mintz has actively pursued the discussion of GE with other rabbis. "It is a Jewish mandate to save our brothers and sisters and heal the world. But we don't have enough information on how this will impact us."
This is something mirrored by Rabbi Marc Israel, of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism in Washington, D.C., which works on Jewish interests in public policy. "We recognize the fundamental partnership between human beings and God, which is that God provides us with the ability to use our resources to benefit humanity," he says. "We recognize the potential benefits [of GE food] but have some grave environmental concerns that need to be weighed. Therefore," he says, "we encourage proceeding with great caution."