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WWMD (What Would Maimonides Do) About the GMO Kashrut Question?

I've been grappling with the problem of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) for a long time now, and as my awareness of them has increased, their presence in my diet has decreased. This is partly due to health concerns, partly due to environmental factors, and partly a matter of social responsibility. The fact is, I don't trust companies like Monsanto with my body, with the land that my food is grown on, nor to have respect for (the few remaining) farmers who are still acting as stewards of the earth. No authoritative consensus has been reached on whether or not GMO foods are kosher, and I've been looking to the Torah for insight into the debate. What I've found thus far, is that so many of the practices inherent in agribusiness contradict the laws of the Torah and the Talmud, it's almost impossible to conceive of GMOs being kosher.

Starting from the beginning, here's a passage from Genesis, 1.29:

God said, "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food."

GMO crops have historically been developed not to bear viable seed. In other words, each batch of GMO seeds will yield only one crop, and the seeds from that crop, the "second generation seeds" lose their vigor, forcing farmers to buy new seed each year. Companies like Monsanto have been developing Terminator seed technology.

Terminator refers to plants that are genetically engineered to render sterile seeds at harvest – a technology that aims to maximize seed industry profits by preventing farmers from re-planting harvested seed.

If that doesn't fly in the face of Torah, I don't know what does. Next, there's the problem of cross-pollination. Both the Torah and the Talmud comment on concern for one's neighbor. First, there's the good old quote from Leviticus 19.18:

Love your fellow as yourself

The Mishna takes it further, offering commentary on damages to neighbors.

Surprisingly, we are cautioned against causing the loss of benefit to another, even if he has no legal claim to it. The principle "that one should not drain the water of his well when others need it" is found in the Talmud. A Jew is even commanded to prevent damage threatening his neighbor from an outside force.

The Talmudic sages expanded these laws to also prohibit psychological disturbances, such as possible exposure to a neighbor's observation, noise, and so on. Anyone suffering from such annoyances may appeal to the courts to force his neighbor to remove them. This may include the removal of the cause of the noise, even if the noise is only indirectly due to it and even if its removal will cause the owner financial hardship. Based on these rules, the following guiding principle was drafted: "One may not save his own property from damage at the expense of his fellow's damage." This principle could serve as a foundation in modern legislation for pollution control.

Cross-pollination of GM seeds has come to be called "genetic" or "biotech" pollution. It can be caused, for example, when wind transports a GMO seed into a non-GMO field. The horror stories of farmers finding that their crops have been cross-pollinated with GMOs are rampant. Not only do organic crops lose their premium value, but to add insult to injury, many of these farmers often wind up getting sued by the very biotech companies whose seed polluted their fields in the first place. Take Percy Schmeiser, who was sued by Monsanto when his fields were contaminated by their GMO "Roundup Ready canola." Then there was the whole Starlink debacle, in which a biotech corn not approved for human consumption made its way onto grocery store shelves.

These two issues alone–GMO crops that don't bear viable seeds, and damages to neighbors (near and far)–seem like reasons good enough to label GMOs as Not Kosher, but they're just the beginning. I'll follow this post up soon with more examples of why I don't think there's anything kosher about GMOs.

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