Written by Dr. Mahvash Hussain-Gambles
(This article was written by Dr Mah for the Halal Journal July/August 2010 issue.)
The 1970s saw the start of genetic modification technology, which in essence takes genes from one species and forces it into the DNA of another species to produce Genetically Modified (GM) food. These ‘modified’ genes produce proteins which generate specific characteristics or traits, such as highly productive and resilient crops, vegetables growing in the desert, and vitamin-fortified grains. Thus, genetic modification promises significant advantages such as feeding millions of starving people of the world, as well as environmental benefits – by reducing the amount of land needed to grow crops, thus allowing more land to be used for natural habitats. Genetic modification or genetic engineering is not to be confused with cloning, which is exact biological copies of normal animals, identical twins of sorts.
There are over 40 plant varieties which are at commercialisation stage and a large amount of food stuff on a supermarket shelf would already contain GM food or its derivatives. Microbial rennet (used in many dairy produce including cheese), grains such as maize, corn or rice or even everyday vegetables like spinach or tomatoes (or its derivative such as tomato sauce or other types of cooking sauces containing tomatoes) can be from a GM source. Let us not forget livestock which is often fed on GM grains.
Governments around the world are working hard to establish regulatory processes to monitor the effects of GM, approving new varieties of GM plants and labelling regulations for foods containing GM, depending on the political, social and economic climate within each country or region. In the European Union (EU) for example, if a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or contains ingredients produced from GMOs, this must be indicated on the label. This means products such as flour, oils and glucose syrups have to be labelled as GM if they are from a GM source. However, products produced with GM technology (cheese produced with GM enzymes, for example) do not have to be labelled. Products such as meat, milk and eggs from animals fed on GM animal feed also do not need to be labelled. Due to major global inconsistencies on the regulation of GM food, it is impossible to ascertain which everyday food stuff is GM-derived; only local food regulatory authorities within each country can provide clarification on this matter.
The possible introduction of animal genes into food plants also presents considerable ethical difficulties for Muslims and members of other religions which forbid the eating of certain animals or their by-products. At present, due to lack of labelling regulations, it is impossible to tell whether the GM food stuff on our supermarket shelves already contains animal genes. However, present commercial technology appears to be more focussed on splicing bacterial genes into plant genes, rather than animal genes.
Experimentally, pig genes have already been planted into plants (Pig Genes Introduced into Rice Plant – http://www.agnet.org/library/rh/2002009b/) and plant genes have been planted in pigs (Transgenic pigs expressing plant genes, Heiner Niemann in Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 May 11; 101(19): 7211–7212). It is hypothesised that human genes may also be put into plants as part of the ‘functional food’ fad of biotech companies. Such foods would be designed for specific health problems. Scientists are concerned about putting human genes into plants, which they argue would go beyond crossing the species barrier, as it would cross the kingdom barrier (animal to plant). This barrier has already been broken, with transfers of firefly genes to corn, hamster genes to tobacco and flounder genes to tomatoes (http://www.greens.org/s-r/19/19-08.html).
When considering whether GM food as a product of genetic modification technology is Halal or not, we should also bear in mind that genetic modification as a process does not only apply to foodstuff, but also promises to improve the quality of human life. For instance it has been used medicinally to manufacture cheaper vaccines, and to provide an alternative to natural animal insulin (usually derived from the pancreases of pigs or cattle) to treat diabetes. Thus providing a potential Halal source of medicine for the treatment of diabetes (one of the fastest growing diseases in the Muslim world).
However, after many decades of practical application of genetic modification, certainly for foodstuff, serious questions have been raised by scientists.
Biochemical pesticides or biopesticides is another application of GM food. Biopesticides are naturally occurring substances produced by GM plants to control pests by non-toxic mechanisms. GM plants genetically engineered with natural materials such as bacteria genes will allow GM crops to survive by producing substances, such as insect sex pheromones that interfere with mating, as well as various scented plant extracts that attract insect pests to traps. GM plants that produce biopesticides will increase their resistance to many different kinds of pests. Conventional pesticides, by contrast, are generally synthetic materials that directly kill or inactivate the pest and may affect different existing organisms, from birds to insects to mammals. In addition, biopesticides are often effective in very small quantities and often decompose quickly, thereby resulting in lower exposures and largely avoiding environmental problems (pollution) that can be caused by conventional pesticides.
An example of a disadvantage of GM plant is in the case of plants that are genetically modified to allow high survival rate under very high doses of herbicides (giving farmers more flexibility in weeding), which leads to using even stronger and potentially more dangerous chemicals as the weeds become more resistant to one weed killer, thus needing an even stronger one. This may cause damage to wild life and the wider eco-system (as stated in references 1 and 2). Furthermore, with cross-pollination it is possible that these strains may ‘leak’ out causing permanent and unpredictable damage to our environment.
Questions have also been raised about the long-term safety of GM food for human consumption. Scientists agree that there is a high possibility of ‘accidental changes’ in genetically engineered plants, which may produce unexpectedly high doses of plant toxins. GM crops might have “increased levels of known naturally occurring toxins,” and the “appearance of new, not previously identified” toxins (as stated in references 3, 4 and 5).
The same mechanism can also produce allergens, carcinogens, or substances that inhibit assimilation of nutrients. Laboratory tests as well as anecdotal human studies show GM to be linked to toxic reactions in the digestive tract and liver damage. Animals fed on GM feed were shown to have higher death rates and organ damage. Signs of reproductive failure and infant mortality, sterility in livestock as well as GM crops triggering off immune reactions and increasing incidence of allergies in humans have all been reported (as mentioned in reference 5).
Without adequate testing of the long-term effects of ingesting GM products, there is no way of guaranteeing that there is no long-term health issues associated with a particular type of genetic modification. Just because one type of GM does not cause problems does not infer that another type of modification will be free of health risks. Since GM foods are not properly tested before they enter the market, we consumers are the guinea pigs. With this knowledge in the public domain, it comes as no surprise that the sale of organic-certified foodstuff (that do not allow any GM ingredients) is going through the roof around the world, as cautious consumers are deliberately avoiding foodstuff that may contain genetically modified crops.
Let us also not forget the ethical dilemma in the GM debate. Genetics is essentially the science of the building blocks of life. It could be argued that by using genetic modification, we are embarking on a slippery slope down the path of Eugenics, from preventing critical diseases to occur, creating new organs for transplants, or inhibiting certain natural human traits to occur, which have been created by Allah the Almighty for reasons only known to Him. Due to the many different types of genetic modifications and their applications from medical to foodstuff, there are conflicting views amongst Islamic scholars or the Mufti’s on whether GM is Halal or not. Perhaps the best approach would be to define what uses would be Haram and Halal rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
It is my personal opinion that Muslims should exercise caution with regard to GM foods, as there is nothing to lose by holding back until scientists know more about the long-term health effects of GM foods. It is vitally important that the specific modification type and entire manufacturing process should be investigated, including its long and short-term implications for human health and the environment. This is in keeping with the premise of Halal, which is about health, safety and benefit for all mankind.
The author would like to thank her husband, Malcolm Amir Hussain-Gambles for his contribution to this article as well as Dr. Hani Mansour Mosa Al-Mazeedi from Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) for his helpful comments on this article.
*About the Author:
Dr. Mahvash Hussain-Gambles (Bsc, MA, PhD, MRSC, Dip Hom) is the founder and formulator of Saaf Pure Skincare UK. Dr. Mah has a Doctorate in Clinical Trials (Leeds Medical School, UK), an in-depth knowledge of healing plants and evidence-based medicine due to her formal training in Homeopathic Medicine, first degree in Pharmacology and later a Masters Degree in Health Service Research, with work experience in the field of cancer medicine. She is highly published in her field and also a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society for Cosmetic Scientists.
2. de Vendômois JS, Roullier F, Cellier D, Séralini GE. A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health. Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-726.
3. “Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada; An Expert Panel Report on the Future of Food Biotechnology prepared by The Royal Society of Canada at the request of Health Canada Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada” The Royal Society of Canada, January 2001.
4. Edwin J. Mathews, Ph.D., in a memorandum to the Toxicology Section of the Biotechnology Working Group. Subject: Analysis of the Major Plant Toxicants. Dated October 28, 1991.
5. Division of Food Chemistry and Technology and Division of Contaminants Chemistry, “Points to Consider for Safety Evaluation of Genetically Modified Foods: Supplemental Information,” November 1, 1991, www.biointegrity.org.