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The Karma of GMO Food

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What does Buddhism have to say about genetically modified food? Needless to say, the Buddha didn't know anything about DNA, much less the possibilities of modifying it technologically. So it is not surprising that I've been unable to find references to genetically modified organisms (GMO) in any Buddhist text -- though I admit that my search has not been very thorough.

An alternative approach is to consider whether traditional Buddhist teachings might give us some insight into our new situation.

Because of the way it spread, Buddhism has tended to adapt to local dietary customs, rather than export and impose food restrictions. Given the difficult climate of Tibet, for example, it is not surprising that Tibetan Buddhists have often eaten a lot of meat. Another factor is that, in general, Buddhism has been less concerned about what we eat than how we eat it, since our dukkha "suffering" is rooted in our craving -- and food is the second most popular example of human craving.

Buddhist monastics are expected to live a simple life largely unconcerned about mundane matters such as food. In many Buddhist cultures they eat only before noon. According to the Patimokha that regulates their daily lives, "There are many fine foods such as ghee, butter, oil, honey, molasses, fish, meat, milk, and curds. If any monastic who is not sick should ask for them and consume them, it is an offense entailing expiation." Notice the careful wording. Evidently the problem is not with these foods themselves, but that seeking and indulging in them is a distraction from what monastics should be concentrating on. There is no suggestion that lay followers should also avoid them, and the qualification -- "any monastic who is not sick" -- is a good example of Buddhist pragmatism.

Historically, the main food issue for Buddhists is whether one should be vegetarian. This has been somewhat complicated by the fact that, according to the earliest accounts we have, the Buddha died of a stomach ailment apparently caused or aggravated by eating pork. Buddhist vegetarians have sometimes considered this fact scandalous and denied it, but it is consistent with what we know about the early Buddhist community.

According to the Vinaya rules established and followed by the Buddha himself, Theravada monastics are mendicants. Being dependent on what is donated to them, they are not required to be vegetarian -- with an important restriction often followed by devout laypeople as well: "If a monastic sees, hears or suspects that [meat or fish] has been killed for his sake, he may not eat it." Such practices are not required of non-monastics. Not observing them may create bad karma, but that is one's own decision.

What, if anything, do these attitudes imply about genetically modified food?

There is a problem with any absolute claim that genetically modified food does not accord with Buddhist teachings: there's little if any support for the position that "unnatural is bad" in any early Buddhist text. That's because Buddhism does not romanticize nature or "being natural." Our distinctively Western ambivalence between infatuation with technological progress, and nostalgia for a return-to-nature, is not characteristic of Asian Buddhism.

Here it is helpful to remember the three "basic facts," according to Buddhism: dukkha (suffering or "dis-ease"), impermanence, and not-self.

Impermanence means that everything arises and passes away according to conditions, including ourselves. Socially, this implies an openness to change, including progress -- if it really is progress, that is, an improvement. New technologies are not in themselves a problem, for the important issue is their effects on our dukkha. Buddhism is not nostalgic for some prelapsarian time when life was "natural," because there never was such a golden age.

In contrast, not-self involves realizing that nothing self-exists -- not only because there is no permanence, but also because everything is interdependent on everything else. This fact does not discriminate between naturally-occurring things and more technological ones: nothing has any reality of its own, because nothing is on its own. In effect, everything is part of everything else.

If we don't need to worry about disrupting genetic "essences" such as the DNA of a plant or animal species, doesn't that liberate us to do whatever we want technologically? Not quite, because the most important criterion for Buddhism remains the consequences of any GMO for dukkha "suffering": does it tend to reduce dukkha, or increase it?

In general, the genetic modifications that I am aware of seem designed more for the convenience of the food industry than for the benefit of consumers. The focus has been on growing and processing food more efficiently and profitably, rather than on taste or nutrition. Prominent examples are sterile "terminator seeds" and Roundup Ready crops engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's own brand of herbicide. In a controversial 1998 British experiment, Arpad Pusztai reported that genetically modified potatoes caused immune system damage to rats; his results have been criticized but have also been defended by other scientists. In 2000 StarLink corn, with a built-in insecticide and a protein indigestible to humans, was accidentally released into the human food chain, leading to 37 reports of serious allergic reactions.

These and many other incidents are discussed in Kathleen Hart's book Eating in the Dark: America's experiment with genetically engineered food. Such issues suggest what Buddhist emphasis on interdependence implies: that altering the genome of food plants (and no doubt that of animals as well) is an extraordinarily challenging process with many consequences that are very difficult to anticipate and evaluate exhaustively. Producing safe and nutritious food appears to be more complicated than providing most other consumer products.

Perhaps this helps to explain why the European Union does not allow most GMO foodstuffs to be sold in Europe. The technological modification of plant and animal species, without a much better understanding of how all the genomes of living creatures affect each other, is an especially important example of how our technical ambitions can outrun our wisdom.

In short, the genetic engineering of food, as presently practiced, may be incompatible with basic Buddhist teachings, insofar as it is more likely to increase dukkha than reduce it.

This does not necessarily mean that genetic modification of food is always a bad thing. From a Buddhist point of view, most technologies are neither good nor bad in themselves. Nor are they neutral. That is because technologies cannot be separated from the larger social, economic, and ecological contexts within which they are devised and applied. Since Buddhism does not privilege "the natural," including the natural selection that drives the evolutionary process, there is the possibility that in the future some GMO might actually serve to reduce dukkha. For that to happen, however, it's essential that the evaluation process not be distorted by other, more problematic motivations that make it more likely to increase dukkha.