Bioethics And The Food We Eat

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The recent Kraft Foods recall of genetically altered taco shells, and ensuing brouhaha has brought agricultural biotechnology back into the headlines.

Until recently, opposition to genetically modified foods (GMFs) in America was mainly confined to a small group of environmentalists and liberal activists – a group vastly outnumbered by a bio-tech alliance of federal regulators, international corporations and mainstream scientists. The opponents worried that manipulating plant genes could lead to health hazards and environmental damage by introducing new, untested products into the marketplace.

However, as research evolves and more and more products are becoming genetically altered, opposition is growing in more mainstream circles, and for a wide variety of reasons. Many are wary of the technology and economic issues involved, but an emerging coalition is opposed based on ethical and religious considerations.

While many people reject the idea that technology interferes with the natural order of things, others say that humans shouldn't tamper with what nature or God has created.

Many religious traditions are opposed to genetically modified foods for ritual, ethical and theological reasons. Vegetarians of all faiths and people following kosher laws (Jews and Muslims) face a special dilemma with regard to genetically altered foods, as do Hindus who have strict dietary laws for festivals and various fasts. The concept of "dietary law" is brought into question when foods containing genetically altered ingredients are mixed together.

Steven Druker, executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, feels that GMFs are problematic for many religious communities. A religious Jew, Drucker argues that much of the corn used in processed food in the United States has been genetically altered with an insect gene that allows it to mimic a natural pesticide. Similarly, in an attempt to create frost-resistant tomatoes, antifreeze-enzyme-producing genes from fish have been mixed into the gene pool of tomatoes.

Theological questions concerning the limits of human power and the intrinsic worth of the natural world are in the vanguard of objections to GMFs. Many religious authorities are fairly liberal in allowing the use of new technology - for example, genetic therapy and cloning for infertility is often considered acceptable. They reason that the manipulation of "creation" for human benefit, especially in the areas of health and healing, is beneficial to mankind. However, these same judges warn against going too far in the use of technology because of prohibitions against radically altering the boundaries of creation, leading ethicists down a slippery slope into the unknown.

Many feel that once you've started engineering genes in foods - making a redder, bigger, frost-resistant tomato - it's only a hop and step to altering genes to producing fattermore meaty cows, and then to changing DNA in humans to produce the "perfect human." Indeed the Human Genome Project is working on just that: creating a map of the genetic code that is in every human cell in an effort to eradicate certain illnesses. The question is "how far should it go?"

Biotech professionals argue that it is inaccurate to characterize a modified tomato as "forbidden fruit." They say they are not trying to limit people's food choices, but to increase them by increasing a plant's production.

Dr. Manjul Sharma, responsible for the oversight of biotechnology research in India, defends bioengineering. "Vegetable or animal?"” she asks. "Millions of bacteria are on all the vegetables that we eat. Bacteria are living things. The genes in vegetables are just protein. Even milk has bacteria. The curd that you make it with is made with the help of bacteria. Now, is curd vegeterian or nonvegetarian? Curd is eaten during religious festivals and fasts. Protein is a chemical entity. It is a molecule."

Jerry Caulder, chairman and CEO of Akkadix, whose engineers use biotechnology to increase food production, believes that the engineering of food makes sense. "Are we playing God?" he asked. "No, rather we're using the intelligence God gave us to figure out how to make plants healthier, last longer and produce more food to feed the population explosion." He argues that taking a gene from one organism and adding it to another does not fundamentally change that organism into anything new.

Rabbi Avram Resiner, who teaches bioethics and rabbinic law at Baltimore Hebrew University in Maryland, contends that Jews who keep kosher can eat bio-engineered foods. His based his decision on the advent of the microscope, which allowed people for the first time to observe microscopic life. He feels that "subvisible entities are not a concern."

Some critics feel that such research projects are linked to the alleged ills of industrialized agriculture and the clout of big business. They believe that the biotech food industry hasn't delivered much in the way of obvious benefits to consumers - most of the genetically altered crops offer value only to farmers, in the form of higher cash crop yields. "It hasn't supplied consumers with anything they want - it's all risk and no benefits," says biotech critic Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. Others are concerned that the production and distribution of genetically altered foods should not be in the hands of corporations whose primary motive is profit, not safety. And there is a concern that the almost unimaginable wealth to be gained from genetic breakthroughs may have a corrupting influence in research.

A recent lawsuit regarding GMFs has just been dismissed by the federal government. Critics of the FDA wanted the government to require labels on foods made with genetically enginered crops. The lawsuit challenged the government's premise that gene-altered crops are basically the same as those developed by conventional methods and therefore are not subject to the same regulatory controls as food additives. The government disagreed.

Bioethics scholar Arthur Caplan says, "Genetics will be to the 21st century what physics was to the 20th. With biological warfare, new drugs, genetically engineered foods, it will touch every aspect of our lives. But people know nothing about it - and I'm worried about that."

He hopes that by raising ethical questions, he can encourage society's "gate-keepers" - schools, religious leaders and the media - to take an informed look at the issue.

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