Buddhism and Measure H:
Banning the Growing and Raising of Genetically Modified Organisms in Mendocino County

A talk given at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas on February 14, 2004.
Vajra Bodhi Sea: A Monthly Journal of Orthodox Buddhism, v. 34, Series 82 (April, 2004), pp. 39-43.

By Ron Epstein

I would like to thank the Sangha for inviting me to speak with you tonight. Some of you may be wondering what Measure H has to do with the Buddhadharma and why we are taking time during the period for sutra lectures to discuss it. I think it's very important to remember that all dharmas are Buddhadharmas, and that the Venerable Master Hua taught us that we have a responsibility towards the country in which we are living. This is one of the few places in the world where we can freely practice Buddhism without interference or oppression from the government. This is a democratic country in which the principle of freedom of religion is practiced. In order to protect freedom of religion and to maintain the democracy in this country, all the people in the country, including us-both lay Buddhists and monastic Buddhists-must act responsibly. If you are a citizen, you have the responsibility to vote intelligently. If you are a teacher, you have a responsibility to teach the students how to be knowledgeable and responsible citizens of this country. And if you are student, you should learn what it means to be a responsible citizen. And if you are in none of those categories, you still have a responsibility to do whatever you can to lessen the suffering of all the sentient beings in this country. That is why it is important that you understand about Measure H and its relationship to the Buddhadharma.

Here in the United States is really the first time that Buddhism has existed in a truly democratic country. Throughout most of the history of Buddhism, this kind of responsibility was not an issue. And so the relationship of the Sangha and the Buddhist laypeople to a democratic government--voting, making sure we have good representatives in the government, making sure that we have good laws, and that we understand what we are voting for-all these things are relatively new in Buddhism. The Venerable Master Hua often said that he was very grateful to this country and wanted to do whatever he could to help it, and he always encouraged those of us who were citizens to make sure that we voted and selected wholesome people to hold public office.

In the election coming up on March 2, we have two very important tasks that affect the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and Dharma Realm Buddhist University directly. One is voting for the county supervisor for our district and the other is voting on Measure H. If approved, Measure H will ban the growing and raising of genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County. I've heard that many registered voters at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas have gotten some confusing campaign literature in the mail about this particular measure and don't know whether to vote for or against it, and that's why I've come to discuss it with you.

Genetically modified organisms are organisms (plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, trees, insects, all kind of sentient life forms) that are made or transformed through genetic engineering, which involves artificially moving the DNA from one species to another species. For example, using genetic engineering you can put plant DNA in animals, or animal DNA in plants, or human DNA in the vegetables or fruit that you eat. All of these are examples of genetic engineering creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These GMOs are different than anything that would naturally occur or that would be developed through breeding or hybridizing. GMOs have fundamental changes in their DNA, which is the program for determining how the particular organism will develop. DNA contains genes, which then create RNA, which then creates nucleic acids, which then creates proteins. Proteins are the basic building blocks of all living things. In other words, genetic engineering changes the fundamental DNA of all living things in a way which is very unnatural and cuts across species boundaries. It is very possible that in the future, scientists will, probably unintentionally, change human DNA, so that the bodily support systems for the process of self-cultivation that leads to enlightenment are damaged.

Now I want to tell you something about the history of how I became an author of Measure H. 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, and so I started looking into this matter. Not only did I find out that such vegetables were actually being developed, but I also found out that some scientists were putting humans genes into vegetables. Since there were no laws to require labeling of GMO vegetables, there was no way to know whether you were eating pure vegetables or vegetables with weird genes in them. In 1993 I wrote a short article for Vajra Bodhi Sea about the dangers of genetic engineering for vegetarians, because I wanted all of the members of DRBA (Dharma Realm Buddhist Association) to become aware of the problem. The editorial board of Vajra Bodhi Sea eventually took the article to the Venerable Master, who said that this was really, really important and that they should publish the article right away in a fashion that would draw everyone's attention to it. Soon afterrwards the Master asked me why I wrote the article, and I said, "Well, I think this development in science and technology is very dangerous. It goes against Buddhist principles, and it's going to not be good for the environment." The Master then told me that it was very good that I had written the article, that I was completely correct, and if we didn't do something about it, genetic engineering would cause tremendous damage to the world. He then strongly encouraged me to continue to write about the dangers of this genetic engineering.

In 1996 the Board of Directors of the Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA) passed a formal resolution about genetically modified organisms, which reads: "DRBA believes that genetic engineering of food is not in accord with the teachings of Buddhism. Buddhism considers genetic engineering of foods to be unwarranted tampering with the natural patterns of our world at the most basic and dangerous levels. DRBA believes that the lack of labeling of genentically engineered food is a defacto violation of religious freedom. Without labeling, Buddhists have no way to avoid purchasing foods that violate their basic religious beliefs and principles. And Buddhist vegetarians have no way to avoid purchasing foods that contain genes from non-vegetarian sources. The DRBA urges all countries to require labeling of all genetically engineered foods."

Therefore, if you have taken the Bodhisattva precepts to eat pure vegetarian food, or if you have not taken the Bodhisattva precepts and you want to eat pure vegetarian food, this is an issue that concerns you.
It is estimated that about 70-80% of all the packaged food in the United States has GMOs in it already, even though they are not labeled. The closest you can come to avoiding GMOs in your food, other than growing your own food from organic seed, is to buy organic food, because according to the National Organic Standard, anything that is labeled as officially certified organic cannot have more than a very small amount of GMOs in it. In all other cases, you won't know whether you are eating GMOs or not.

Some of you may be thinking "Well if there is a problem with GMOs, the U.S. Government Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture or the Environmental Protection Agency should be aware of it, do careful testing, and then propagate regulations and do labeling, so that we can know what is safe and what is not safe." In an ideal democracy, that would be the case. In the European Union there is a lot more sensitivity to the dangers of GMOs, and for the most part they are not imported into the European Union, and those that are must be labeled. That is not the case in the United States. Why? It is because here in the United States there has been a serious breakdown of our democratic processes on the national level. The simplest way to explain that breakdown is what is known as a "revolving door" between industry and government. In other words, starting with the Clinton administration and now the administration of President Bush, the multinational corporations who make GMO products have contributed tremendous amounts of money to both President Clinton and President Bush and also to many senators and representatives. Because they have a tremendous amount of influence in the government, both Presidents Clinton and Bush appointed people from these industries to do the regulation of these industries, and allowed the industries to tell the government whether their products were safe or not, without the government doing any independent testing. What this means is, on the national level, there is no effective oversight of GMOs and no program of objective testing to see whether these products are safe for human beings and the environment. Because of this governmental failure, we are all unwilling and uninformed guinea pigs in what is probably the biggest experiment with human health and well-being in all of human history. Not only is that the case, but when these GMOs are released into the environment, they cannot be recalled. They will genetically pollute humans, animals, and plants forever with novel combinations of DNA. Suppose General Motors sells a car model that has some defects. According to the law, General Motors must tell everybody who has bought that car, "We didn't know it, but there was a defect in the car; please bring it back and we will fix it or give you a new car." But if we find out that there are dangers or defects in these GMO products, they cannot be recalled. They will be part of our physical nature, and part of the nature of the environment as long as we can conceive.

Because the federal government is not doing its job, I and a number of concerned citizens got together and put Measure H on the ballot. This ballot measure is limited, because we can only regulate things that are not pre-empted by federal law. For example, we cannot make a law at the county level about anything that has to do with inter-state commerce. And so Measure H is the best that we can do right now to protect people and the environment in Mendocino Country. Since the measure takes a novel approach, the banning of growing or raising of GMOs, the international bio-tech companies are very concerned about it and are doing whatever they can to stop it. They are pouring a lot of money into the county to give people false or misleading information about the measure. They are claiming that it is based on bad science, that it will be very expensive, that it will raise taxes, and that it will interfere with people's privacy. None of these claims is true, but there is no way to stop them from spreading this disinformation. They are very powerful, and they have a lot of money.

Part of Mahayana Buddhist practice is taking responsibility for the welfare of all sentient beings, and that means that we have a special responsibility, not only to ourselves and our own welfare, but also to our neighbors in Ukiah and Mendocino County. That means that we have to be aware of what's going on around us. Those of you who would like to find out more about Buddhism and genetic engineering can take a look at my articles published in Vajra Bodhi Sea magazine and in the Religion East and West journal. You can also look at my website "Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers." Thank you for inviting me to come and discuss Measure H with you.

Editor's Note: Measure H was approved by the voters and is now law. Mendocino County, where the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is located, is the first county in the United States to ban the growing or raising of GMOs.