Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Enviro-Pig and the First Precept

Around bedtime last night, I was listening to the BBC on the radio, and a story came on about a farm in Canada raising Enviropigs. What's an Enviropig? It's a genetically modified pig that's able to digest phosphorus, which means they are less feed intensive and also give off less phosphorus pollution. Like other GMOs, the general argument for meddling with nature is that we need more easier to grow, and more productive food sources to feed an increasing human population around the world.

The ethically tangles around this are so dense, even if you ultimately accept GMOs as necessary. Full disclosure: I've never supported GMOs.

As I listened to the story on the radio last night, I considered the precept of not killing. On the one hand, feeding people who aren't getting fed seems to uphold that precept. However, what about the impact of changing pig DNA? What will that do in the long run for pigs as a species? And what about the focus on the increasing population of humans, to the exclusion of the rest of the planet's needs? How does this fit into the first precept? I've always had some trouble with raising animals solely for people to eat, even when it's done in a humane way. It's different from hunting and fishing, where the animals killed previously lived the life of a wild deer or salmon or whatever. Especially when you look at factory farm animals, it's clear to me that their spirit or animalness is killed off almost right from birth.

Human population discussions are also very dicey. They frequently slip into racist and classist diatribes where poor people of color in countries like India and China are blamed for all the woes of the natural world, never mind that nations with majority white populations have tended to be the biggest polluters, and biggest exploiters of the land up until very recently (when China's impact has greatly increased). And yet, it's also hard to imagine doubling the human population, and not also increasing the damage to the planet we all live on.

So, when considering something like Eviropig, if you unfold a few layers, you start to see issues like abortion, birth control, and family planning under the surface.

The Catholic church has had a very prominent anti-abortion, anti-birth control stance for decades now, the Pope's recent comments notwithstanding. But they aren't the only ones. Every major religion has a significant strand within it that is decidedly focused on blocking attempts at family planning, and working to maintain tight controls on abortions in nations around the world. Buddhism included. The Reverand Danny Fisher recently reported an update to the story about the fetuses discovered at at Buddhist temple. Among other things, the discovery prompted a government crackdown on abortion clinics, which are currently illegal in Thailand, and renewed debate on the country's half century old abortion laws.

I support reducing the number of abortions, but am also all to aware of how decidedly tied to patriarchal views of women and children these laws tend to be. Mostly advocated for and passed by men, highly restrictive abortion laws are almost always linked to bans on family planning measures, including access to contraception, or deep restrictions on non-profit and private groups that wish to offer family planning methods for women.

Enviropig raises all these questions, and even more. Is it true that there isn't enough food in the world to feed people? How are multinational mining, agrobusiness, oil, and other corporations impacting the food supplies and land and waters where said food comes from? Would reforming destructive practices of businesses be a better solution to the "food question" than created GMO plants and animals?

One of my favorite writers and thinkers, Frances Moore Lappe, co-wrote a book about twenty years ago that has some pretty convincing evidence that views that food is a scarce resource in need of being propped up by more production and GMOs is false. I know plenty of people out there would disagree with her analysis, but whenever I hear about another GMO, I think "Who really benefits here?" and "What's the long term impact?"

Another issue with Eviropig to consider is the level of human meat consumption. I've written about vegetarian diets and Buddhism in the past, and tend to see diet as more complex than simply meat or no meat. However, the need for "super pigs" and "super cows," for example, would be greatly reduced if more people either went vegetarian or limited their meat consumption. When it comes to environmental damage, heavy meat consumption - again, especially linked to large scale farming and ranching corporations - is one of the major negative impacts humans are having on the planet.

Eating is something we all do. And how our food comes to us, and what that means for the rest of planet, is something that everyone needs to be considering more closely. The first precept of taking up the way of not killing is a perfect container, in my opinion, for considering such issues. There is more I could write here, but I'll leave it at this for now. How about you? What do you make of Enviropig? And what about all the other issues that come with considering Enviropig?


Dean Crabb said...

Nice article Nathan. My wife and I have slowly been moving to a more vegetarian diet. Not just through conscious choice against meat but because it's better for us and we notice the difference. We just realised we don't need to eat meat every meal, so now we only have it a couple times a week. We also find it cheaper, meat is very expensive. As we've done this more and more we find ourselves liking it more and more. We start to notice other benefits in how we feel for doing it - not only morally - but also physically and in our weight.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb

Ji Hyang said...

Great points. Two articles I would draw your attention to, which add to our awareness of enviro-pig's sociopolitical context. First of all, "Why is Haiti Growing Mangoes When it Needs Rice?"
(answer: USAID/ Bumpers Amendment)
Also, the interconnection between US diplomacy and US industry, specifically genetically modifed food, is explicit here, in the diplomatic cables:

Reforming business practices would, absolutely do more to eradicate hunger. And help our country attain a truly compassionate presence overseas.