The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is ringing out not only in laboratories and legislatures, but also in churches, temples, and other houses of worship around the world.
For some believers, the promise of alleviating hunger with genetically modified foods and obligations to help the poor bumps up against concerns about tampering with nature and economic peonage.
Advocates say genetic engineering is producing more resilient crops and better yields. An overwhelming majority of scientists in a January poll by the Pew Research Center expressed confidence that GMOs are safe to eat. But the same survey found most of the public remains leery of them, and some of the world's major faiths are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the technology.
VICE News took its own sample of voices from some of the biggest faith communities worldwide.
The Roman Catholic Church
The oldest and biggest Christian denomination has sent mixed messages on GMOs in the past few years. Kelly Moltzen and other lay Catholic activists are now hoping that Pope Francis — who has been outspoken on environmental issues during his papacy — might help resolve the issue.
Moltzen, a dietitian and member of the Franciscan Action Network's EarthCorps, is one of those who questions whether GMOs can really deliver the benefits they promise.
"A lot of the solutions are really on the ground," she told VICE News. "The people who are struggling with it are finding the solutions to how to address it. I think that people need to be working more on the ground with the farmers and those who are growing the food to come up with the solution, instead of relying on these big multinational companies that are just trying to push their genetically modified crops and things like that."
In 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican's top scientific body, issued a statement in support of the technology when "used appropriately and responsibly." But Cardinal Peter Turkson, a top adviser to Pope Francis, warned in 2012 that GMOs could keep farmers dependent on proprietary seeds and lead to "a new form of slavery." In 2013, he told an audience of scientists and business leaders that biotechnology should be used with "a deeply responsible ethic," and he urged both sides of the debate to work together to come up with a solution.
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There's a story in Islamic literature in which Muhammad comes across date growers who are grafting together branches from palm seedlings to produce a better crop. The farmers tell him they've always done it that way; Muhammad suggests that it would be better if they didn't.
They follow his advice, and the harvest suffers. Muhammad is forced to explain that he was only expressing a personal opinion, and they should only take his word as law when he speaks on religion and morality. In other matters, like farming, they should follow their own expertise.
In a similar manner, most Muslim clerics have taken a hands-off approach to the issue of GMOs, Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told VICE News.
"To my knowledge, I haven't seen anyone say it's not permissible," said Moosa. "But I have seen people who have adopted a position of caution and said one has to watch this issue. It's not a question of permissible or impermissible, but what is good for our society."
Moosa said when asked whether GMOs are halal — permissible for Muslims to eat — some imams tend to look at the issue in terms of harms and benefits. "If they cannot see what the harm component is going to be, they're going to say that it is permissible," he said.
"You have other groups of Muslims who are thinking about these issues ecologically, thinking in terms of capitalism, thinking in terms of what is the harm or potential harm that GMOs might have," said Moosa. "So they adopt a cautionary approach."
There are almost as many positions on GMOs among Protestant denominations as there are Protestant denominations. But many of them take the kind of cautious approach embraced by the Presbyterian Church USA, which "kind of puts the burden of proof on new technology," to prove its safety, said Andrew Kang-Bartlett.
"I think most of that comes out of a concern for those living in the margins of society — folks that are oppressed, impoverished, hungry, and so on," Kang-Bartlett, a national associate for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, told VICE News. "Given that much of the chronic and extreme hunger and impoverishment is found in rural areas, where people rely on agriculture, how that farming is done is critical to their health and to their survival and prosperity."
Kang-Bartlett said the church's position is informed by the history of inventions like the now-banned pesticide DDT, once hailed a modern miracle.
"We used to use it widely in agriculture and household uses. It was only in the long term that we saw the effects on the whole chain of life," he said. "It took years for them to find out the impacts on the environment, the health of animals, the health of humans. Until we see the effects long-term, it shouldn't be so widely used."
Judaism has a millennia-old tradition of debating what's kosher, and that debate is in full swing when it comes to GMOs.
"It's kind of two-fold," Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president of the Orthodox Jewish social-justice advocates Uri L'Tzedek, told VICE News. "If the GMO was made with the intention of creating greater yields of valuable crops to feed hungry people, that may be a positive step. However, if the GMO somehow uses components of non-kosher animals, say some genetic splicing with pigs or shellfish of some type, it may be rendered treif" - impermissible for consumption—"in terms of Jewish dietary law."
Some organizations that certify foods as kosher may consider them permissible even if there's an outside chance they could harm human health, he said. Others may hesitate due to fears that gene splicing could create "an unnatural chimera that goes against God's Creation."
While the Torah has a special ban on sowing mixed seeds and grafting trees, combining genetic material in laboratories isn't covered by that ban, Yanklowitz told VICE News. The question with GMOs is more about their effect on human health and the environment.
"If they are created in such a way that significantly harms human health, then they may be forbidden. However, if they don't, then they may be okay. There is still a debate in Jewish law if smoking is prohibited," he added.
There's no governing doctrine on much of anything in Hinduism, the world's third-largest religion.
"Apart with a few key factors, concepts like karma and rebirth, most of the people we call Hindu would probably not agree on many of the issues," University of Florida religion scholar Vasudha Narayanan told VICE News. But there's a tradition of pragmatism toward new technology that provides an opening for GMOs in daily life, if not religious ritual, she said.
"They may have it in the regular food, but they may not do it in offerings of food to the deity in a temple," she said. "There would be ritual contexts in which GMOs might not be used."
There's no hard-and-fast rule or single text that guides all Hindus, but there are what Narayanan called "the virtues which are common to human beings"— values such as nonviolence, gratitude, and compassion.
"Given this attitude of pragmatism, the chances are high that GMOs can be accepted, especially if you can say that this is for the greater good," said Narayanan. "It will allow you to avoid famine, feed more people, and so on."
Related: Are GMOs safe? The People Speak
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