Its been a bad couple weeks on the anti-GMO front. Last week the USDA approved the planting of GM Alfalfa without restrictions, and they are now poised to approve GM Sugar Beets as well. These approvals come as part of the efforts of the Obama administration to remove "burdensome" regulations, and are a sad betrayal of consumer's rights and environmental health concerns. Alfalfa, America's fourth largest crop, is planted on over 23 Million acres. What this approval means is that while currently 93% of alfalfa is grown without the use of pesticides, the approval of GM alfalfa will undoubtably increase the use of herbicides in our environment. Herbicide overuse has spawned a new generation of superweeds that can only be killed with super-toxic herbicides such as 2,4, D and paraquat. Moreover, patented "Roundup Ready" crops require massive amounts of climate destabilizing nitrate fertilizer. Compounding Monsanto's damage to the environment and climate, rampant Roundup use is literally killing the soil, destroying essential soil microorganisms, degrading the living soil's ability to capture and sequester CO2, and spreading deadly plant diseases. Alfalfa is primarily a feed crop for cows, thus further increasing the levels of GM toxins in their fat tissues, raising them to much higher concentrations than what was originally found in the plants. Genetic contamination from genetically modified alfalfa to Organic and Conventional (Non-GMO) alfalfa is also virtually guaranteed. The organic and environmental movements have understandably been shaken by these developments, causing some to wonder if the USDA's policy is simply to allow Monsanto to regulate itself.
However, there are also reasons to remain hopeful. Based on the principle that it's always darkest before the dawn, these recent GMO deregulation decisions have sparked general outrage within the organic and environmental activist communities, provoking many articles and calls to action across the board. Legal challenges to the USDA are being considered by the Center for Food Safety, based on the lack of Environmental Impact assessments showing the crops to be safe. Legal actions may also be taken down the road based on the legal precedent of "Toxic Trespass". If a farmer carelessly or deliberately sprays pesticides or herbicides on his or her property, and this toxic chemical strays or "trespasses" and causes damage to a neighbor's property, the injured party can sue the "toxic trespasser" and collect significant damages. Such a suit was recently won by the organic farm Jacob's Farm / Del Cabo Farms, which serves as a great legal precedent for similar actions in the future. By that point, of course, the damage has already been done. Genetically modified foods are gradually becoming a more mainstream issue as more and more people learn of their dangers, and a critical mass is soon approaching.
The absence of a similar response of outrage from the Jewish community on this issue leaves me disappointed. As Jews, we are often meticulous in our regard for keeping kosher, going out of our way to read ingredient panels and look for kosher certification in order to make sure that our food is "fit" for eating. And yet, there is virtually no way to tell if there are GMO's in our food (other than assuming that they are or eating only organic foods). Given the numerous questions regarding the kosher status of genetically modified foods, why isn't there a rabbinic call for labelling of GMO's, or at least withholding kosher certifications unless they are shown to be GMO free? How can animals raised in Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFO's) aka Factory Farms and pumped full of genetically modified foods be considered fit to eat? Additionally, how can conditions in these CAFO's pass our standards for Tzar Baalei Chayim, the ethical treatment of animals? How come our Jewish values of Tikun Olam and value for life don't cause us to protest when millions of acres are allowed to be sprayed with additional herbicides? It seems to me so obvious that Jewish values prohibit the consumption of genetically modified organisms and yet Jewish authorities and current Jewish practice remains woefully behind the curve in addressing this issue. Hopefully this post will help to raise the call from Jewish groups against the use and consumption of genetically modified organisms. It is our moral and religious duty to do so, and it our health and the future of the planet which is at stake.