What Might the Organic and non-GMO Food Movements Teach Us About The Jewish Community and Bugs In Vegetables?

Over the recent decades, there has been a push in some circles of society towards organic food and away from Genetically Modified food. Many reasons are given; health, fear of chemicals, a moral stance on what kind of farming ought to be done by people, whatever. This despite the fact that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that GMO’s are safe, and that organic food is not necessarily any better for you. Why, then, does this persist? There seems to me to be a class element to this movement. It used to be that what set different classes apart was the quality and quantity of food available to each wealth sector. With the advances in farming and agricultural science providing an unprecedented amount of food to an unprecedented amount of people, I suspect there were people who unconsciously started to think, “well, my food must be better than that which is eaten by the common peasant”. And thus, organic food movements and anti-GMO movements are born, both of which reject methods to increase agricultural yields and concurrently access to food by the poor, preferring more expensive alternatives that are supposed to be a more refined and more ideal product. In this way, the more well-off get to establish themselves as better for having paid a premium price for food they see as more ideal, and get to set themselves apart from the unwashed masses of peasants eating peasant food. This despite the fact that this movement is a net loss for humanity, especially when companies start satisfying demand for these “natural products” by deliberately choosing agricultural policies that decrease their yield, driving up food prices and pricing out the poor. In other words, when rich people are allowed to set the market operating under the unconscious assumption that they must set themselves apart from the peasantry, the market tends to follow their lead, to the detriment of the poor.

I think a similar thing has occurred in the Jewish world when it comes to the idea of bugs in vegetables. With food suddenly plentiful, the well-off and well-educated unconsciously search for reasons to pronounce their own food as being of higher quality than that available to lower classes. And what they found was that bugs in vegetables fit that bill. That a new badge of pride would be the high prices paid for checked produce, or even the total avoidance of certain produce altogether. And by doing so specifically within a religious context, it meant that the poor had to keep up on these religious standards, (unlike people who can just go ahead and buy unorganic and GMO food), as they become seen as a important aspect of being an Orthodox Jew. The effect, unfortunately, is a regressive tax on Orthodoxy: poor people depend on produce for a higher percentage of their diet than the rich who can afford to dine on (kosher-slaughtered and glatt) meat. Suddenly, if they want to keep within the frum community, produce is out of their price range again. Even for those communities which are okay with checking vegetables at home, there is a certain person who can afford to spend as much as an hour of their time merely prepping the vegetables, and its not, say, a single mother of 5 who has a full time job to pay for yeshiva tuition. The effect is essentially pricing the poor out of Orthodoxy by allowing the rich to set the standards of religious practice.

Rabbinic decisors ought to be cognizant of these trends and their deletritous effects of the community and stop them before they become widespread. It is not enough to offer poor families certain dispensations on a case by case basis; the fact that certain trends become standard within the community such that a given parent will feel that they can’t afford to keep halakha is itself a problem. In the case of bugs and vegetables, there have been poskim, most notably the Aruch HaShulchan, who have recognized the undue burden that being machmir would place on members of the Orthodox community. I’m not offering any practical suggestions for psak, nor do I have any right to, but I am wondering aloud; would it be so terrible if the Orthodox community agreed to follow the Aruch HaShulchan, and be mekil on this issue, so that the poor would feel more welcome in our community?

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