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Why Biotech Foods Are Kosher

By C.L. Richard, O Hebrew
A Revista Da Cumnidade Judaica Brasileira
April 2000

Not since the 1960's has the question of Kashrut taken on such an interest in the secular community. Today, small but vocal activist groups affiliated with the political Natural Law movement claim genetically modified or biotech foods should not be kosher.

In the 1960's, some of these same activists called for a ban on grapes in the United States claiming they should not kosher; their justification: immoral growers were exploiting migrant farm workers toiling under inhumane conditions.

While conditions for migrant farm workers may well have needed improvement, this did not make the grapes non-kosher. Just as food politics in the 1960's did not guide Kosher law, the same is true today for foods derived from biotechnology crops.

Rabbi Yechezkel Auerbach, Director of Administration for K-of-K Kosher Supervision, instructs us, "Kashrut is not a political question. It is a question of law - of Halachic, the laws governing Kashrut." Rabbi Auerbach emphasizes "Kashrut should not be politicized. It is not a question of external pressures. Rather, it is the deliberative process of interpreting Halachah."

Some activists groups suggest that Rabbinical scholars may have been pressured into designating biotech foods as Kosher because they can benefit those most in need. As concluded in the recent Nuffield Commission report in the United Kingdom, "it would be immoral not to continue development of GM crops" because of their potential benefits to the poor. Morally, biotech foods can be Kosher.

It's true, biotech foods offer benefits to consumers, farmers, and the environment in both the poorest and wealthiest of nations. Plants with reduced reliance on chemical insecticides are already available, eliminating the need for millions of pounds of chemical applications every year. New generations of crops enhanced with vitamins and vaccines have been developed. If we support biotechnology, these crops may eventually help prevent blindness, malnutrition and disease in millions of people around the world.

Yet, while there is a place in Halachah where you evaluate the common good, it is not because of what biotech foods can do for humanity that influences this decision on Kashrut; rather it is a different moral question. What are the implications of biotechnology to those who wish to show their reverence to Hashem by following the laws of Kashrut. How then, do the Rabbis interpret Halachah to come to conclusions that preserve Yiddishkite?

The learned response from the Orthodx Union (OU) "Ask the Rabbi" at www.ou.org states, "The Halachic implications of bio-engineered foods with possible genes from non-kosher sources has been studied at length by the OU's Rabbinical Kashruth Advisory Board, headed by the renowned Rabbi Israel Belsky of Mesivta Torah V'daath and Rabbi Hershel Schechter of Yeshiva University."

The conclusion of this Rabbinical Board was that biotech foods do not present any Kashruth problems because non-kosher genes are not implanted into the plants. Non-kosher genes serve only as a chemical template. The template is then reproduced onto materials taken from yeast which are then introduced into plants via bacteria. The reproduced gene in the plant is therefore from a kosher source.

The OU Rabbis clarify that not all bio-engineered products are inherently Kosher, "It is important that we differentiate between a gene-splicing technique (such as herbicide-tolerant soybeans), which is acceptable, and bio-engineered ingredients which would still require supervision."

On the question of kosher, the Rabbis are clear. But, as with all foods, the OU qualifies that kosher does not imply "safe." Thankfully, this is where sound science enters.

As a scientist working on questions of risk and public health, I have joined the hundreds of independent experts who have evaluated the rigorous testing and government oversight that ensures biotech foods are as safe as their conventional food counterparts. In addition to a deliberative process similar to that of the learned Rabbis, biotech foods are thoroughly and objectively evaluated under the watchful eyes of government regulators.

Starting with research and development, multiple government agencies and international bodies provide oversight at each step on the road to market. Studies are done to evaluate all aspects of biotechnology-improved crops. Nutritional qualities of the genetically enhanced plant - protein, fat, fiber, starch, amino acids, sugar and key minerals - are compared with conventional counterparts. If the new protein or gene does not change the nutritional factors examined, regulators and scientists can conclude the food is as safe as food from other plant varieties.

"Foods containing genetically modified grains have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people with absolutely no adverse effect," explains Dr. Julian Morris of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and co-editor of Fearing Food (Butterworth-Heinemann). Dr. Morris points out that studies of biotech foods can not prove that the food will never be a problem. But they demonstrate there is no scientifically supportable reason to believe foods passing these screens will become a problem."

As you go down your market aisles, confirming that each item is Kosher before placing it in your shopping cart, you need not worry about the grapes or other fruits and vegetables. They are kosher. They may also be "biotech." And no matter what some secular activist says, biotech can be kosher, too.


C.L. Richard is a board Certified Industrial Hygienist trained in exposure assessment and toxicology. An active member of the Jewish community in Pikesville, Maryland (USA), Richard specializes in public health issues and is a frequent writer on food related topics.