April 25, 2005
Can Eating Rice With Human Genes Be Considered Cannibalism?

Insertion of a human gene into rice raises the question of what is a human.

Environmentalists say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived food because it will smack of cannibalism.

But supporters say that the controversial new departure presents no ethical problems and could bring environmental benefits.

In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

A scientist quoted in the article claims mammalian liver enzyme genes inserted into food crops could be used to clean up soil contaminated by industry chemical pollutants.

Will people buy the rice?

But anti-GM campaigners say using human genes will scare off consumers worried about cannibalism and the idea of scientists playing God.

Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK said: 'I don't think anyone will want to buy this rice.

I predict lots of people will buy and eat the rice just for kicks. But use of liver enzyme genes from other species would effectively avoid the cannibalism claim. Then British opponents to genetic modification of food would switch their other standard reasons for opposing this sort of thing.

British researchers would be a lot more reluctant to try what these Japanese researchers did. Opposition to genetic engineering of foods is much more widesprad in Britain than in Japan or even in the United States.

The Japanese researchers may have used the human gene rather than a gene because they happened to know more about it. But surely other genes could be found to do the same thing.

Picture something far more extreme that just putting a single human gene in rice. Imagine the ability to grow human cells in culture to grow muscle tissue. Would you consider someone who eats human muscle tissue grown in a vat to be a cannibal?

In a few decades tissue engineering technology will be far beyond what we have today. Growth of organs in vats ought to be a piece of cake by the year 2035. I predict home tissue vats sold to the masses will lead to celebrity tissue cannibalism. Picture someone running up to a celebrity and either pulling out some hair or scratching the celebrity with fingernails and then running away. That'd be a way to get cells from that celebrity. Imagine some college sorority or fraternity whose members who have egged on each other to get celebrity tissue samples. Then the frat or sorority could grow up the tissue and dine on the hot babe of the day. Criminalization will just make the dinner parties smaller and more select.

Of course some narcissists will insist that nothing but their own vat-grown tissue is tasty enough. Then there will be the exhibitionists who will grow their own tissue to give or sell to others.

Biotechnology will eventually reach then point where full human bodies minus the head can be grown in a vat. Imagine growing a replacement body, having your head transplanted to it, and then eating the old body. One can imagine big old/new body dinner parties where someone using their new body has all their friends over to eat the old one. How will the old body be served? As Frank famously put it: "That's a rather tender subject. Another slice anyone?"

Feel disgusted or revolted?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 25 02:15 PM  Bioethics Debate

Lono said at April 25, 2005 2:30 PM:

Hmm.. for some reason I cannot see wanting to eat my old body...

I assume it would be in poor shape, full of toxins and nanomachines, and generally unappealing to the palate.

However I have often disturbed my co-workers discussing how I will be glad when I can eat my own tissue samples to supplement my strict vegetarian diet.

(Which I plan to switch too - probably about the time that becomes possible)

However these musings aside I wonder why a Human gene was selected over that of another mammal?

I personally, even as a fundamentalist Christian, do not have any ethical qualms using human genes in other animals/plants when done with serious critical forethought - but I am VERY concerned about these new synthetic species replacing wild ones.

And I don't see any way these new phenotypes could be kept well isolated and still be of pratical use.

I also don't see a solution to this problem anytime soon - but rest assured mankind will go blindly ahead with these genetic implementations since cash is king and Human lifespans are unfortunately still very short.

TheRoyalFamily said at April 25, 2005 3:20 PM:

Just one question: of all the possible applications, why do you see eating human tissue as the big...issue? It will most likely just be a fringe thing, like necrophilia is now (I hope that is a fringe thing...).

Also, why would one want to grow a new body for an old head? By the time we can connect major nerve systems together, we should be able to put a brain in a robot body, or even possibly just the mind.

Oh well. Just try this one on:

Fry: "My God! What if the secret ingredient ... is people!"
Leela: "No. There's already a soda like that. Soylent Cola."
Fry: "Oh. How is it?"
Leela: "It varies from person to person."

Antinomy said at April 25, 2005 4:04 PM:

If you haven't already read it, you will enjoy the short story "Assimilating Our Culture, That's What They're Doing!" by Larry Niven

Jim said at April 25, 2005 4:11 PM:

regarding the gene, is it specific to humans or is it a gene all mammals, including humans, have?

and yeah, I was a bit disturbed that of all the things that one could do growing human tissue, you kept returning to the eating of human tissue... come on - eating a hot babe's lab-grown flesh?

Molotov said at April 25, 2005 4:31 PM:

I have tasted some of this new Japanese rice and I must say it rather tastes a bit like roasted liver actually. I suspect the liver genes were taken from a Japanese individual, since my own spoken Japanese generally improves quite promptly after eating a portion of the hepatological grain. Having made those telling confessions, I must say that eating entire human bodies reminds me unappetizingly of the movie "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover." It seems rather likely that these discarded bodies will be secreted away in the dead of night by a highly paid group of disposers, who will nevertheless be looked upon with utter contempt.

RonG said at April 25, 2005 6:39 PM:

Don't we already have about 30 percent of our genes in common with plants?

spiny widgmo said at April 25, 2005 6:58 PM:

Hey Molotov,
How does that rice taste with fava beans and a nice chianti?

gmoke said at April 25, 2005 7:33 PM:

from http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/story.jsp?story=632444

"In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals....

"Professor Richard Meilan of Purdue University in Indiana, who has worked with a similar gene from rabbits, says that plants modified with it could "clean up toxins" from contaminated land. They might even destroy them so effectively that crops grown on the polluted soil could be fit to eat.

"But he and other scientists caution that if the gene were to escape to wild relatives of the rice it could create particularly vicious superweeds that were resistant to a wide range of herbicides."

I am less concerned with the fact that human genes are being used than that this whole scenario smacks of parachuting cats into Borneo, as the story goes. Wouldn't it be smarter not to contaminate the soils we grow our food on with pesticides, herbicides, and industrial chemicals. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe I've seen reports already of superweeds as well. Also, I saw a report last week or so that shows health benefits for mice fed on organic foods.

I'm going to plant peas tomorrow. I like to grow my own as much as possible. It tastes better to my palate and I enjoy the process. I also like to have the option of saving my own seed if I so chose and not being sued into poverty because Monsanto says they own the very concept of RICE or CORN (both trademark registered, all rights reserved).

Factory said at April 26, 2005 5:29 AM:

Hmm while it might be rational to percieve vat grown human flesh as just meat, there are very strong cultural taboos against canibalism. I'd suspect that in the general food market having human dna in a product would have a very negative reaction from consumers, so much so that companies will just use animal substitutes, just to avoid any connitations of cannibalism.
For the more quirky case of celeb flesh, I assume it would have very strong opposition for certain groups (religion for example), and since it's a gimmicky thing it's unlikely to have strong backers (like whos is going to march on the streets for celeb flesh?). So I don't think it would ever amount to much.

Garson Poole said at April 26, 2005 6:53 AM:

Randall Parker said "Imagine growing a replacement body"

This theme has been explored in science fiction for many years. The Hugo winning author Greg Egan wrote an interesting short story on this topic titled "The Extra" that is available online here at the website of Eidolon.

Randall Parker said "Picture someone running up to a celebrity and either pulling out some hair or scratching the celebrity with fingernails."

For many years I have been expecting some gossip tabloid to begin "stealing" the DNA of celebrities. But it would probably be easier to obtain a DNA sample from the lip of a glass that has been used to imbibe a beverage than to directly assault a celebrity. Also, the sample would probably not be used for some Hannibalesque-style grotesqueries. Instead, the tabloid would secretly commission paternity and maternity checks on stolen DNA to determine the true blood relations of celebrity "love children". Tabloid readers are obsessed with consanguinity and eager to know about Michael Jackson's children, and Melissa Etheridge's children, etc.

Also, celebrity trackers would be eager to know if some famous person has Huntington's Disease or some other tragic inherited malady. The magazine issue that announces this type of bad news would be a best seller. If stealing DNA is made illegal then the tabloid might have to manufacture a cover story and claim that they obtained confidential information from a "close family friend."

Garson Poole said at April 26, 2005 8:32 AM:

Lono said “ I will be glad when I can eat my own tissue samples to supplement my strict vegetarian diet.”

I suspect that this kind of autophagous behavior would be unappetizing to most. Yet, the possibility of culturing and consuming tissue from domestic animals might be acceptable to many. In fact, some countries with activist vegetarian populations may make conventional farming of animals illegal and demand that all meat eaters only consume vat grown tissue. The growth of animal neural tissue would be strictly regulated or prohibited.

Obtaining an erotic frisson from ingesting celebrity DNA tissue would probably be appealing to a rather tiny group. It might provide a sub-plot in a horror-sci-fi B-movie. However, a more “credible” scenario for a blockbuster movie involves individuals who desire full-body contact with fame. Imagine a potentate or dictator who steals the DNA of a glamorous super-model or an actress or an actor. The DNA is used to clone a child destined for the harem of the potentate. Just before the carbon-copy lovely is deflowered the movie hero intervenes and absconds with the beauty while annihilating the villain. In the sequel the clone of the dead potentate would try to obtain revenge.

Engineer-Poet said at April 26, 2005 9:46 AM:

Eating vat-grown human tissue may become fashionable among a certain strange set, but it's definitely foolish.  Why would you want to eat something which could already carry a human disease?  Far smarter to eat something that is very unlikely to carry a cross-infective agent.

I can see one reason for using genes for human enzymes in food crops:  to break down the toxins or their precursors before they get to humans.  If rat or dung beetle enzymes handle certain toxins or their precursors better, they should obviously be used instead (and that would get rid of most of the gross-out factor).

Ken said at April 26, 2005 10:05 AM:

"Eating vat-grown human tissue may become fashionable among a certain strange set, but it's definitely foolish. Why would you want to eat something which could already carry a human disease? "

From where? It's grown in a vat, not harvested from actual humans that have been God knows where. That's a good reason to eschew actual cannibalism (and is probably the source of the cannibalism taboo), but not to reject tissue cultures grown in clean conditions.

I'd probably go for the vat grown pork or chicken instead, though.

Now growing a replacement body for yourself will probably turn out to be an early treatment for the slow, agonizing, degenerative terminal disease known as the aging process. If it can be grown fast enough, it'll also become the standard emergency treatment for, well, everything that doesn't involve destruction of the brain itself. Get dragged in with a gunshot wound, or mangled from a car accident, or any other sort of trauma or deadly but not brain-consuming plague (i.e., superflu/avian flu or smallpox), and walk out later good as new. With the success of trauma treatment assured, look for "extreme sports" to get more extreme and gain wider popularity...

Phil Bowermaster said at April 26, 2005 11:38 AM:

"Imagine growing a replacement body, having your head transplanted to it, and then eating the old body."



That just doesn't sound like human behavior. I know mammals sometimes eat their young, but shedding a body (or some part of a body) and then eating it? Does any species do that? For one thing, even if one were to entertain the idea of eating human flesh -- and it really doesn't appeal to me -- I don't think a stringy old replacement body would be particularly good eating. We certainly wouldn't eat a pig or a cow that had reached the equivalent advanced age.

Ken wrote:

"I'd probably go for the vat grown pork or chicken instead, though."

That sort of thing is a lot more appealing. I wonder whether vegetarians (at least the ethical kind, as distinct from the health kind) will be willing to eat vat-grown animals. I note that Lono pointed out that he would be willing to eat his own vat-grown tissues. Why not vat-grown beef or chicken? Assuming the animals aren't hurt in the process of gathering the tissue samples?

gmoke said at April 26, 2005 2:00 PM:

Whatever else, I'd guess GMO's with human genes will not be Kosher or Halal. That should put a dent in the market.

TheRoyalFamily said at April 26, 2005 3:59 PM:

Some species of reptiles eat the skin that they shed...

TheRoyalFamily said at April 26, 2005 4:00 PM:

Some species of reptiles eat the skin that they shed...

toby said at April 26, 2005 4:34 PM:

It hardly needs to be said, but swallowing saliva is more like canibalism than this.

toot said at April 26, 2005 5:43 PM:

At one point the question was raised as to how many human genes would have to be spliced into an organism's genome before we would have to be concerned that the organism was in some sense human. That is an interesting question, but I think I'll pass on getting involved given the direction the discussion has taken.

gmoke said at April 27, 2005 6:37 PM:

Who owns your DNA?

GENEarchy said at May 1, 2005 4:53 PM:

"Who owns your DNA?"
Well, i had imagined that i did. Was i, by any sense, incorrect?

What's next, stolen genetic "property"?

Lexi said at June 30, 2005 11:10 PM:

The world is a crazy, sad and scary place. Anyone know any other sites that have news we don't hear in "the news"?

Bola said at March 9, 2006 6:29 PM:

I thank God this cannibalism is not taken place in Africa. Japanees need to be ashamed.

Jessica Carmody said at March 28, 2006 7:54 AM:

WHAT THE HELL IS THE WORLD COMING TOO!!!! eating rice with human DNA!!!! I CERTAINLY won't touch it. but if I had some sort of health problwm and it would help.....I guess I would *eye twitches at the very thought of eating rice with human DNA* now I LOVE anything to do with japan but.....human rice is taking it a BIT too far. personally, I think we are getting ourself's into something we might soon regret. just look at how far we've come in say.... the past 500 years.... i'm betting our Ancestors would kick us in the ass for thinking about putting human DNA where it souldn't be.

Manny Olaer said at October 31, 2006 12:51 PM:

Don't be a hypocrite! If only I'm allowed to eat human, We sure are tasty! Yum.. Anything called food, no matter how it's created are scrutinized for approval by the Food and Drug Administration. I'm pretty sure It's not a civilized idea to accept this kind of market. Let them eat their crabs rice, it's a good mix with the dogs too.

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