March Against Monsanto 31. What are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are defined as any living organism whose genetic hereditary material has been altered. Genetic material, the DNA of organisms, can be altered through:

  1. selective breeding of plants and animals. This has been practiced in various forms since the earliest days of our ancestral farmers.
  2. genetic engineering that has been occurring in the last half-century which involves the direct transfer of DNA between organisms at a microscopic level.

GMOs themselves include a variety of organisms. In agriculture, domesticated livestock and food crops are usually modified to create better, more resilient and more productive breeds. Scientific and medical research often use GMOs for the production of chemicals, medications, antibiotics and vaccines. Many ornamental plants and flowers are genetically modified.

2. Why the fuss?

Well, simply put, the GMO business is tricky. GMOs affect us in two places where we feel it the most – our food and medicine. Additionally, the use of GMOs in agriculture and research has knock-on effects on the environment (that we obviously all depend on). When we speak of GMOs, we are talking of conflicts of interest between global companies, governments, activists, farmers and the average citizen. There are pros and cons with regards to human health, food ethics, animal rights and environmental health. Science is usually undertaken with no independent moderation and profits seem to speak larger than rights.

What is certain is that a great doubt exists in various aspects, such as the health implications, environmental impact and political agenda of the GM companies etc. It is our hope that for the sake of the Ummah and mankind in general, Muslim scientists of repute and integrity could shed some independent light on this matter. – South African National Halaal Authority (SANHA), Genetically Modified Foods

March Against Monsanto 23. So, what does Islam have to say about GMOs?

Dealing with GMOs in Islam is no simple matter. There are many aspects to consider, some of which are:

  1. Is the actual process of genetic altering organisms acceptable? To what extent? And on which organisms is this allowed (compare bacterial cell to a potential animal embryo)?
  2. Are there animal rights violations occurring in the testing and production of these GMOs?
  3. Are these GMOs halal? Are these GMOs tayyib (pure and wholesome) for human health in the long term?
  4. What about the impacts of using these on other microbes, plants, animals and the environment in general?
  5. What are the effects of promoting the GMOs commercial industry on the small farmers, the poor and the undernourished? Will GMOs empower them or enslave them to a global corporate?
  6. Can corporates copyright GMOs and sell them?

“In conclusion then, it can be said that Islamic scholars need to seriously investigate the issue of GMF (Genetically Manipulated Food) and prove its conformity to principles established within Islamic sources. Such an investigating necessarily requires close collaborations between traditional areas of scholarship with modern natural and life sciences. The presentation of the issues and challenges outlined in this paper is intended to serve as a starting point for further in-depth examination and debates on the subject.” – Isabel Schatzschneider, The Debate on Genetically Manipulated Food: An Islamic Perspective, 2013-07-16

4. GMOs, Monsanto, Global to South Africa

Monsanto is a multinational company that began in the USA more than a century ago. It has a long history of chemical and agricultural seed production. On Saturday, 21 May 2016, there was a global march against Monsanto in over 400 cities in 50 different countries ( From France to Mexico, Chile to South Africa, protesters gathered and raised the issues of human health and food sovereignty.

Monsanto’s presence in Africa, particulary in South Africa is not new ( In a continent and a country where our average small farmer is vulnerable to climate change, land right issues, weak economies, corruption and poor support structures, the issue is as complex as can be.

I support the march against Monsanto because I feel there is a disconnect with our food. Large corporations, like Monsanto, have dehumanized our food. I wish we could trust our government in South Africa to make informed decisions about our food, but that is being too optimistic. Access to healthy food is a constitutional right, yet in most cases you have to be rich to eat healthy. We need to restore food ethics of care that underpins our food system. Food is our heritage. We must work together, support small-scale farmer, and model new systems of ethical, eco-agricultural practices. Of our kids and for future generations.” Rifqah Tifloen, @GreenDeenSA board member, 2016-05-16

Recently, Monsanto has released a request to test a new set of GMOs in South Africa. The application is for field trials of three genetically modified maize products in the Western and Northern Capes, Free State and Mpumalanga, and was published in The Business Day, dated Monday 23 May 2016. An online petition has been started to object to these trials in South Africa. To read more about the petition and sign-up to it at

5. Recommended readings and websites

1. The Debate on Genetically Manipulated Food: An Islamic Perspective,by Isabel Schatzschneider, 2013-07-16.

2. Genetically Modified Foods Q: Are Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or ingredients or products containing GMO’s Halaal?, South African National Halaal Authority (SANHA).

3. The African Centre for Biodiverstiy website.

4. The Monsanto website.

5. The South African Food Sovereignty Campaign website.

March Against Monsanto


One thought to “GMOs, Islam, Monsanto and South Africa”

  • Susanna Coleman

    This is an important debate but I feel you’ve left out two MAJOR aspects of GMOs. 1. That the seeds (you use the words “better, more productive, more resilient”) are sterile i.e. One cannot harvest seeds and grow the next generation of crops. A farmer becomes locked into a bankrupting dependency on the annual purchase of seeds. It is ‘sold’ as more productive, but in reality, the greater yield barely pays the cost of next season’s seed. This cycle has seen loans and bankruptcies play a major role in land loss; and is central to political vulnerabilities where government Agri support can be withheld in districts that try to vote for the opposition.
    2. The health ramifications: GM wheat/maize on the human endocrine system has seen diabetes increase by 10% in a decade. Big Agri now complements Big Pharma in reaping mega profits from “treating” disease that is built in to the staple diet. The ethic of that is probably more addressable in the Islamic context than simply whether one is allowed to modify or not. Given that organ donorship and surrogacy is now permitted.


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