Saleha Suleman (Cape Town, South Africa)
By 2030, the world population is expected to be 8.5 billion people. While the number of people increases exponentially, the earth’s resources are depleted at the same rate, if not faster. As a result, the first genetically modified food, a Flavr Savr tomato, was produced in 1992 with the same technique used to produce antibiotics for resistant bacteria – a favourable gene is taken from one species and ‘placed’ into another. This way, scientists can combine two favourable factors in one crop, for instance fast growth rate and resistance to pests.
Those in favour of such products argue that many impoverished communities in countries affected by drought or other natural disasters would have a reliable food source, and these crops would have been altered to be able to grow in unfavourable soils as well as be resistant to pests, rodents and the diseases they carry. Fungal infections could destroy acres and acres of papaya or potatoes and cause a farmer to be unable to sell those crops into the market, and GMO’s can prevent this.
Despite this, there have been several concerns in regards to the consumption of foods engineered in a lab, such as the lack of natural nutrients, the fact that this could become a business rather than a means to sustain people and even the religious ramifications, where some say that manufacturing GMO’s is equal to playing God. There are also several unknown health repercussions of consuming GMO’s, which may make themselves evident only in the long term. One of the more worrying conditions that people show concern for is cancer. I myself have had many a conversations with my family about whether these products lack in nutrients.
Furthermore, when the initial roll out of GMO’s started with corn and soybean, there were no regulations which required companies to state that these products were GMO’s, and so unsuspecting consumers were enraged for being cheated into having non vegan, kosher or Halaal foods. It has of course, since then been mandated to have labels in many countries.
In this article, I aim to summarise what the four major monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism – have to say about genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).
Muslims are ordained to eat only halaal meats, and the consensus amongst clerics seems to be that as long as the genetically modified product consumed does not have any part of meats that are not allowed (such as pork), there is no problem in consuming such foods.
While some have argued that the Qur’an states that no man will be able to create anything as perfect as Allah has, most scholars elaborate on this verse by explaining that genetic modification is in fact, modifying already existing creations. Additionally, as Allah’s Khalifah on this earth, if something has more benefits than harm to it, Islam welcomes these benefits. If, however, there is more harm, or someone chooses to afflict harm by it, that act is prohibited.
Like Islam, Judaism requires food to be kosher, meaning it falls under specific categories of permissible foods and that it is slaughtered in a mandated way. The religious scripture of Judaism, the Torah, states explicitly that it is impermissible to mix breed two animal species, although the official stance of the Israel kashrut authority is that GMO’s do not affect a food’s kosher status if it is in microscopic amounts. The country also has very strict labelling policies, although not all kashrut authorities around the world hold the same standards.
In USA, for instance, a genetically modified salmon was produced a few years ago and classified as kosher because it technically still had scales and fins. However, the labelling around it was unclear in whether it would have a GMO label or not. People have often been seen to believe kosher foods are healthier than non kosher foods, and although this has no scientific basis, this could be construed by many as deception.
While the general view of the Vatican is that provided such foods undergo thorough ethical and nutritional examination, GMO’s could greatly help to reduce the hunger striken in a continuously growing world population in many parts of the world, especially considering that new technologies are able to ‘cut out’ allergens and unhealthy components of crops. The Church of England also infers that scientists’ ability to take part in these processes are “a result of the God given powers of mind and reason”.
There are, however, other churches that are still anti-GMO’s and believe that it is not a permanent or magic solution for hunger, but rather ‘messing with nature’ or ‘playing God’. It is also important to note that while one church in a specific country may have a pro stance to GMO’s, the same church in a different country can have the opposite standing. This was the case at Anglican Church of Cape Town, South Africa in 2002, where the Archbishop believed that GMO’s would not be safe for consumption nor would they blend in well with the African systems of farming, causing hundreds of farmers to lose jobs.
The Hindu’s view on GMO’s is largely unclear, despite the anti-GMO campaigns that ran in India after GMO brinjals were permitted. One University of Florida religion scholar opininates that GMO’s may be used by Hindus in regular food but not as a part of rituals or offerings to their deities.
Eventually, it seems that with the world ethos moving gradually towards rationalization governing an individual’s decisions, unless religions specifically permit or ban GMO’s, it may be up to the individual’s personal understanding and beliefs that make this decision. However, my personal opinion is that as long as GMO manufacturers adhere to strict regulations to ensure no tampering and explicitly state the contents of the products in retail markets, large scale production would hugely reduce the burden on a declining agriculture industry due to continuous climate change. Additionally, to avoid negative competition between farmers and GMO producers, the two sectors should be merged, and incentives provided to farmers to have a blended production process of both natural and genetically modified crops where possible.