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Playing God or Playing with God? The Theology of GM Salmon

For many consumers, even those comfortable purchasing and consuming GM products, there is something “different” about creating transgenic animals for human consumption. When people are confronted with the idea of genetically modified animals many think of Dolly, the famous sheep who was the first successful clone of a living animal. One of the first arguments against both cloning and genetically modifying animals is that scientists are “playing God.” However, in the 21st century, our society is used to other invasive measures which, at other points in human development, may have also been viewed as “playing God,” such as surgeries, birth control and fertility treatments. While the idea of “playing God” may be a compelling reason in some religious communities why humans should abstain from certain acts of which we are intellectually capable, this argument may not hold as much water in the Jewish religion. It could even be argued that Judaism encourages us to “play God;” or perhaps Judaism envisions these human innovations as “playing with God,” rather than pretending to be God.

Throughout rabbinic literature, human beings are seen as playing an important role in the world – as being partners in Creation with the Creator. The most common examples are various ways in which God created objects in the world, and we have come up with ingenious and useful ways of improving them. God created flax and we discovered how to turn it into linen; God created wheat and we discovered how to turn it into bread; God created grapes and we discovered how to turn it into wine. In fact, one reason that bread and wine factor so importantly in our ritual traditions is precisely because they are the two most ubiquitous examples of the partnership between the Divine and humanity in creating our physical world.

However, is there a fundamental difference between taking different ingredients – such as wheat, yeast and water – and processing and combining them in such a way that they create a useful byproduct, as opposed to taking the microscopic genetic material which makes something what it is and combining that with other microscopic genetic material from a different organism to create something which shares properties of all the original organisms from which those genes were taken? In other words, is it possible to determine a point at which our roles and responsibilities of being partners in Creation might prevent us from being stewards of Creation? This conundrum also begs the question whether or not all genetic modification is the same.

For example, for the last three years scientists have been breeding GM goats with spider genes which produce milk exhibiting the properties of spider silk. The resulting product is one which has important medical applications and has been shown in real-life circumstances to be life-saving. Judaism is a religion which encourages life-saving measures be taken even when those measures contradict religious edicts – an ill patient may consume non-kosher foods and medicines, Shabbat may be desecrated to save a life, circumcision is not performed under certain extenuating circumstances, for example. Proponents of GM animal food products might argue that the existence of a faster growing salmon, a food-source rich in proteins, vitamins and important fats, might reduce costs and make that product more available to impoverished communities who would certainly benefit from its availability. Opponents of GM animal food products, like opponents of all GM products, argue that the benefits and risks of these organisms in our ecosystem and diet are not fully known and the risks may outweigh the benefits. Salmon is a particularly sensitive population which might be threatened by competition were GM salmon to escape farms for the wild. The question then stands, just because something is theologically consistent or sound with the teachings of our religion does it make it appropriate?

Currently, the FDA is in the midst of a 60 day public comment period before they issue their final verdict on AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon – the world’s first genetically modified animal for human consumption. The GM product is a sterile female Atlantic salmon with a growth gene from a Chinook salmon and a growth promoter gene from an ocean pout – an AquAdvantage transgenic salmon grows to “market size” in approximately fifteen months, while a typical salmon would take three years. AquaBounty and the FDA claim that because the fish is sterile it will have no measurable impact on the ecosystem and, like all other GM foods, those who develop them claim they are safe for consumption. Pending the public comment period, the FDA is expected to finalize the approval for AquAdvantage salmon by 2014.

Ultimately, in trying to come to terms with a world in which we have the ability to genetically engineer life we need to consider the implications of our roles as both partners in and stewards of Creation. There is always a possibility that in pursuing our incredible impact as partners in Creation we might lose sight of what it means to be a steward of Creation. It might be that our dedication to stewarding Creation might impinge on the possibilities of what we could help foster as partners in Creation; however we also must be sensitive to the possibility that in striving to expand our roles as partners in Creation we lose sight of our responsibilities to ensure a healthy and sustainable world for future generations.

Justin Goldstein is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, ME. Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Rabbi Goldstein has been regularly teaching on Judaism, food justice and sustainability for many years. Justin is also a volunteer board member for Maine Interfaith Power and Light and is a 2012-2013 fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. Find Rabbi Justin Goldstein on Facebook.


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