Rifkin cites ecologists who “believe that herbicide-resistant and pest-resistant transgenic plants will increase the likelihood of creating new resistant strains of ‘superweeds’ and ‘super bugs’ in the years ahead.” Profitable short-term solutions thus produce worse long-term problems. Rifkin’ s second key notion is that nothing in our political or economic system justifies an inherent right of private companies to modify and patent plant, animal, and human genetic material. The genes in living organisms have evolved over hundreds of millions of years; they are part of the public domain. Indeed, the patent which opened the floodgates for commercial exploitation of genetic material was for a genetically engineered microorganism designed to clean up oil spills. The U.S. Patents and Trademark Office rejected even this attempt to patent a “living organism.” After nine years of litigation, the patent for the microorganism was granted in 1980 by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow five-to-four decision. The immense implications of this Court decision that life could be patented were not lost on corporate America. A few months later, Genentech became the first privately held genetic engineering firm to go public. Genentech stock was offered at $35 per share. In the first twenty minutes of trading it reached $89 a share. This right to patent life and exploit it commercially, which so excited investors, was, in a sense, almost happenstance. A mammal rather than a microbe as the test case, a shift in one vote in the Supreme Court, and the consequences could have been radically different. From this one key case, it became clear that management of the biotech century is a matter as much political and legal as scientific. Rifkin has been, as a reviewer in Nature put it, “Of all the skeptics … the most maligned by the principal players in the new bio-academic-industrial complex.” Though labeled a neo-Luddite, he has no monolithic opposition to genetic research and its applications in such areas as medicine and creating balanced ecologies. In fact, he insists that it is the supporters of unrestricted genetic engineering who have created a false “either-or” premise in which resistance to any aspect of biotech nology must be the product of a blindly anti-scientific mentality. He would have us judge each issue and development on its particular merits. Biotech Century is, however, a polemical work. Rifkin sounds a wide range of alarms, and he supports many of these with convincing argument and evidence \(and they gain further support from a number of other well-documented sources not cited tical and quite possibly, very unpleasant consequences of releasing large numbers of new transgenic species of microbes, plants, and animals into the environment, in what he dubs “playing ecological roulette.” He cites the use, now, of genetic THE GENES IN LIVING ORGANISMS HAVE EVOLVED OVER HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS; THEY ARE PART OF THE PUBLIC DOMAIN. profiles to classify people for such purposes as health and life insurance, employment, and marriage. He argues \(correctly, I within a generation parents with the financial means will often choose in vitro fertilization in order to have their early-stage embryos genetically “improved.” Informed with an engineer’s perspective, society will begin to see departures from idealized human perfection \(as momentarily debut as errors to be corrected. Any way you cut it, this is eugenics with a vengeance. A clear political agenda is implicit in Biotech Century. Rifkin alerts us to the fact that commercial biogenetic engineering is out of control in the United States. Is it asking too much to expect administrations and legislatures, especially at the national level, to begin to bring it under control? The mechanisms, from legislative action to such agencies as the National Institutes of Health, are there. Some issues for instance, controlling monopolistic exploitation of such technologies as the creation of new organs and tissues for human transplants are admittedly subtle and complex; these issues, however, are no more subtle, and are much more important, than the anti-monopoly actions currently underway against Microsoft. It is hardly a com plex issue to require labeling transgenic foods as such, nor does it require great subtlety to simply ban the terminator gene, to give farmers some modicum of financial protection. Biotech companies should be held liable for environmental and human health damages done by transgenic species they have designed. When early-stage embryos were screened for single-cell varieties which cause catastrophic illness, we may have started down a slippery slope toward the most extreme bioengineered eugenics, but there is a distinct stopping place on that slope: ban genetic alteration of human germ cells, which carry all inheritable traits. The Biotech Century should make us aware of our need for politicians who comprehend the long-term dangers to ecology and human health of virtually unrestrained biotechnology. We especially need elected officials sensitive to the obscenity of corporations irresponsibly exploiting and profiting from the codes of nature, human and otherwise, when these codes belong in the public domain. As the biotech century begins, if we now lack representatives with the informed courage to defend the public interest against the rising economic power of the biotech industries, we should look toward the 2000 elections. Rifkin provides a well-documented primer on the issues which must be addressed. James A. Wood is Adjunct Professor of Speech Communication at Texas Christian University. Mathis and Company Certified Public Accountants Tax Work, Litigation Support and Other Analyses Austin, Texas [email protected] pmmcrthisworlclnet.att.net MARCH 19, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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