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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Reaping the Whirlwind Jeremy Rifkin on Corporate Biotechnology BY JAMES A. WOOD THE BIOTECH CENTURY: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World. Jeremy Rifkin. Tarcher/Putnam. 271 pages. $24.95. The sensational advances of biotechnology, mostly celebrated in the mainstream media, also have a dark side which threatens our ecology, our food supplies, our social values, and our very nature as human beings. So argues Jeremy Rifkin, corporate bioengineering’s most formidable critic, in The Biotech Century. Such dangers stem from a reckless pursuit of short-term benefits, driven by corporate greed and shortsighted consumer wishes. Long-term consequences have been virtually ignored by acquiescent government agencies and an uninformed public. The linchpin of corporate profiteering from applied genetic research is the right to patent genes. This right to discover, modify, and then patent genes is itself subject to objections, both legal and moral. Biotech entrepreneurs can be quick to counterattack their critics. Molly Ivins’ Observer column on Monsanto \(“Monsanto: Sowing Suspicion Abroad,” January Fort Worth Star -Telegram, where it elicited a prompt and lengthy Letter to the Editor from Philip S. Angell, director of corporate communications for Monsanto. Angell began his analysis thusly: “By parroting the propaganda of a small but vocal number of biotechnology critics, Molly Ivins….” This “small number” has included major conferences of scientists called to consider possible harms of genetic research and development, beginning in 1975 in Asilomar, California, and as recently as March 1998 in Berkeley. The fact that the caution urged by many scientists is being increasingly swept aside in a rush of commercial exploitation is hardly cause for rejoicing. In his reply, Angell depicted Ivins as uninformed, anti-capitalist, and sensationalist; he also failed to meet directly most of her criticisms of his own company, while focusing on two sub-points where he felt she was vulnerable. Angell ended his reply with a long list of individuals and agencies who “strongly endorse the potential of biotechnology” the implication being that they would all, of course, endorse any specific technology that Monsanto wanted to use. Ivins had already pointed out that at least one of those agencies has gone on record in opposition to a major technology Monsanto is seeking to acquire. Angell’s letter thus illustrated two major strategies of apologists for the biotech industries: ad hominem attacks on critics, and depicting criticism of any aspect of biotech exploitation as an attack on the whole notion of progress in genetic science. Both are specious strategies to avoid dealing with the multiple specific issues raised by such critics as Ivins and Rifkin. Rifkin makes clear two basic notions. First, in the coming century, biotechnology will penetrate our lives in ways as sweeping and profound as computer technology has in the current generation. Much of biotechnology is aimed directly at basic human needs: modifying our food and shielding our health. Tens of millions of acres in the United States are now raising crops from “transgenic” seeds that is, seeds which have been altered by adding genetic material from other species in order to achieve a particular quality, such as resistance to frost or specific pests. Such transgenic food crops are fiercely opposed in Europe. In this country, however, no label even tells us when our food has been transgenetically altered, as has been done, for example, by adding flounder genes to tomatoes or chicken genes to potatoes. Shielding our health certainly seems a noble aim, and Rifkin would agree, up to a point. But when future parents using in vitro fertilization begin to request willing doctors, for example, to shield their child-to-be from hereditary depression, the requisite alteration of several genes is likely to have major and unpredictable secondary consequences on the child’s personality. The combination of genes from different species to produce transgenic species \(only suggests the scope of changes to come in the biotech century. The new biotechnology is radically different from the crossbreeding and selectivity that fanners and other breeders have been practicing for centuries. To use one of Rifkin’s examples of a successful experiment, “Classical breeders could never have produced giant super mice containing human growth hormone genes that grow to twice the size of normal mice.” Biotech companies aim to produce the “perfect” transgenic wheat, or potato, or cow for commercial farming. Of course, they patent the genetic structures of their creations, unlike the typically free exchange of plant varieties in earlier years. Additional strategies increase the biotech companies’ control of agribusiness. Since Rifkin’s book was published, for example, researchers have been developing “terminator” genes that will render each year’s harvest sterile thus assuring that farmers will have to return to the biotech suppliers for seed every year. A reasonable fanner would prefer to grow the single most productive and most resistant variety of cotton or corn. But the short term gains come at the risk of heavy long-term costs, including the crowding out of biodiversity within species, crucial to development of American agriculture for the past two centuries. The biotech solution to such problems as pests, disease, unfavorable climate, and lengthy storage time is transgenetic engineering. This solution, however, creates and releases new varieties and species which have unpredictable impacts on surrounding ecologies. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 19, 1999