Saturday, March 21, 2009

If a tomato contains fish genes, is it still vegetarian?

We live in a time of breathtaking technological advances, and we now have the ability to tinker with the genetic code that is the instruction manual for life itself. An uncountable number of “transgenic organisms” or “genetically modified organisms” (that is, organisms whose DNA has been deliberately altered) have been created in the lab, and in some parts of the world there are thousands of genetically-modified food products on sale, with more in development. This form of genetic alteration can result in much more far-reaching genetic alteration than could ever have been brought about by traditional selective breeding. As one commentator put it:

There are now fish genes in fruit, poultry genes in fish, animal genes in plants, growth hormones in milk, insect genes in vegetables, tree genes in grain, and in the case of pork, human genes in meat.

One well-known Buddhist, who was the author of a bill that banned the growing and raising of transgenic organisms in his county, expressed his concerns about this mix-and-match approach to agriculture:

In the early 1990’s I read that scientists were putting insect and animal genes in vegetables. As a vegetarian I was very concerned, because I didn’t want to eat vegetables that had insect and animal genes in them. I felt that this violated Buddhist principles about pure vegetarian food…

I have to admit that I likewise find the idea of putting animal genes into plants disquieting. The human mind has a tendency to like things, like species, to be neatly categorized into boxes, although nature itself is not so fastidious (you have more viral than human DNA in your genome, for example). And there may be safety and other ethical concerns about genetically modified — for example whether someone who is allergic to fish might be harmed by eating a tomato containing fish genes, or whether there would be harmful effects if genetically-modified animals were to escape and mate with their wild cousins are valid questions. However, the idea of “purity” raised explicitly by the author of the quote above and perhaps implicitly in the instinctive shudder many of us feel when contemplating genetic modification simply isn’t in accord with a strict reading of Buddhist ethics.

Vegetarianism in Buddhist practice isn’t fundamentally to do with purity (the idea that you are “polluting” yourself by putting animal products in to your body). Rather it’s to do with reducing the amount of harm we cause and with developing greater lovingkindness. Non-Buddhist ideas of purity and pollution are commonly smuggled in to Buddhist practice, however. It’s almost inevitable that we’ll do this, because the “purity ethic” is deeply rooted in every culture, to the point where we don’t even question it, and we’re bound to have been conditioned by such ideas from an early age.

The fact that a tomato may contain a gene from a fish, or a potato DNA from an insect, doesn’t create any intrinsic problems for a Buddhist vegetarian who doesn’t fall into the trap of the “purity ethic.” Fish or insects may or may not have been harmed at some point in the development of these crops (although you don’t need to harm an animal to extract its DNA), but even if such harm had occurred it’s at a great remove from the actual consumption of the vegetables.

By the way, I’m not arguing here that genetically modifying organisms is a good thing or that we should do it, just pointing out that vegetables containing DNA from animals would still be vegetarian.

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