Thursday, September 7, 2000
Jeremy Rifkin is prominent in the movement examining the moral and scientific implications of genetic engineering. He is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and author of The Age of Access, The Biotech Century, The End of Work and Beyond Beef. The following is excerpted from a speech he delivered at the University of Quebec at Montreal on January 22, 2000.
Calling the 21st century the Information Age is a little like calling the Industrial Age the print press age: We''ve misunderstood the role of the information-science revolution. The computer is not a raw resource upon which new economies are built, but it is a communication tool upon which new eras are founded. And it bears an analogy with the print press.
When Gutenberg reinvented the print press in 1450, the Chinese had it already. At first it didn''t have much of an economic mission. It played its first powerful role in the Protestant Reformation. The ability to mass-produce those books allowed each believer to bear witness and not have the priesthood or the Vatican as their intermediary to God. It was a revolution. But the economic impact of the print press didn''t become clear until the early 1700s, when it was harnessed together with steam power and coal. It became the language to organize the Industrial Revolution. You needed a communication tool that was agile, quick and flexible, to be able to deal with a fast-paced, high-energy, fossil fuel culture: the print press. You could not have organized the Industrial Revolution with oral and script culture.
Similarly, for the last 30 years, we''ve been tracking two emerging technologies, one a form of communication, the other a resource base: computers and genes. The information sciences and the life sciences. Software and wetware. In the last several years, these emerging technologies of the 21st century have begun to fuse together to create a powerful union for a whole new era in history.
The computer''s going to play many roles in the 21st century. We''re using it for personal information, for entertainment. The capitalist economy is using it to shift from markets to networks, from geography to cyberspace, from ownership to access relations--a great change in the way we do business. But from an anthropological perspective, the primary mission for a computer is that it''s the language to organize genes, to download them, decipher them, manage them, exploit them. Genes for food, pharmaceuticals, medicine, fiber, energy, construction, building materials. The new field is call bio-informatics. It''s the bridge between the information and life sciences. You may want to know that Bill Gates and Microsoft and IBM are now creating strategic alliances with the big life science companies.
Take a look at four companies, Monsanto and Du Pont in the U.S., Novartis and Advanta in Europe. These were chemical giants of the 20th century; they brought us the Industrial Revolution. In the last four years, every one of these chemical companies made the decision to sell and shed their entire chemical divisions, to be exclusively in the life sciences, to be in biotech. This is one of the great changes in history.
Up to now the debate has been set by the industry. In the debates they say, "Either you''re for the future or you''re against progress," putting us in the uncomfortable position of being a wrench in the framework but without our own story. The issue here is not the science. But we need to understand that there''s a difference between the science and the applied science. There is a hard-path and a soft-path way to approach the age of biology. Here''s where the done deal is: We''re moving from the age of chemistry and physics to the age of biology. What we haven''t yet decided is how we want to organize this period of history.
Right now, we have the Monsanto agenda. It''s hard path. I''m going to suggest there is a soft path based on a totally different world view, a completely different approach to science and technology, an approach that requires absolutely no gene splicing, no recombinant DNA technology, a path that will more greatly benefit future generations, keep our options open, pay proper respect to our responsibility to our fellow creatures, and be in line with the values of the young people.
The Hard Path
For more than 25 years, when we''ve discussed this issue, the scientists have asked, "What is the problem here? Why do you have a problem with our approach to using this technology? We''ve been breeding and domesticating nature for 10,000 years, since the dawn of the Neolithic revolution. Isn''t gene technology just a more sophisticated way to get the job done?"
I disagree. Here are four experiments that could not have been done by any classical breeder in history
Experiment one. The University of Pennsylvania. Scientists took a human growth hormone gene, a human gene, and microinjected it into a mouse embryo.
The mouse was born with a human gene functioning in every cell of its body. These mice were twice as big and twice as fast as any mice in history, and they passed that human gene to every generation of their offspring. You can''t do that in classical breeding. In classical breeding, we can cross some biological boundaries: A horse and a donkey are close enough relatives that we can cross them and have a mule. But in classical breeding we cannot cross a horse and an apple tree. Now we can, and that''s the point of this whole experiment.
We now are no longer constrained by the biological boundaries, the teleology of a species. We can eliminate that organism level, move right to the information encoded within it, and begin to strip genes out and recombine them.
Let me drop back a minute with an analogy.
For thousands of years, we''ve been using fire technology. We''re a very Promethean creature up until the turn of this century. We''ve been burning, soldering, melting, heating all the inner crust of this earth, and we''ve created a second Genesis based on steel, glass, cement, cinnabar, plastics. The apotheosis of the fire revolution? We split the atom in the 1940s. In the early 1970s, two biologists, Boyer and Cohen, University of California and Stanford, did something in biology that some believe is comparable to fire technology. They took slices of genetic material from unrelated species and stitched them together, creating a new form of life that had never existed before. The process was recombinant, recombined, DNA. But instead of burning, soldering, forging, melting and heating inert materials, we now talk about stitching, editing, sequencing and recombining living information across biological boundaries to create new, efficient utilities.
But here''s the difference: This is life. And it raises a whole different set of questions.
Experiment two. Scientists took a gene that emits light in a firefly. They stripped it out and put it in a mouse embryo. The mouse was born, and it lights up 24 hours a day. You can''t do that in classical breeding.
Three. Scientists at Edinburgh took a sheep embryo and a goat embryo and fused them together, giving birth to a geep. This is a new species that never existed before. It has the head of a goat and the body of a sheep. You can''t do that in classical breeding.
Finally, cloning. We all missed the story. In our narcissism, we''re consumed with "Will we do it to ourselves?" Of course we will. It''s only a matter of time before the first fertility clinic will make the move. But the real story was not Dolly.
The second sheep was Polly. You didn''t hear anything about Polly. They took an adult cell from a sheep, customized a human gene into the genetic code, then cloned the cell into a sheep. What they demonstrated to the investment community is that it''s now possible to both customize and mass produce identical copies of a living original with the same quality controls, design standards and engineering principles we applied on the assembly line in the first stages of the second Industrial Revolution. We can begin to use these procedures to create factory animals, produce pharmaceuticals and xenotransplants and research models. There''s a reason we call this genetic engineering. It''s not therapy. It''s engineering and it calls for engineering skills and assumptions:. Quality control, quantifiable standards of measurement, predictable outcomes, low ratios of thermodynamic efficiency, and utility. That''s what this game is all about. That''s hard path.
We''re told about all the great benefits. It will cure diseases, feed the world; we''ll have new sources of energy when the oil spigot runs dry. On the other hand, this is the most radical experiment ever conceived at the hands of human beings. Do we substitute the natural world with cloned, chimeric and transgenic animals, and create a laboratory-conceived second Genesis? What are the implications in releasing thousands of genetically modified organisms in relation to spreading genetic pollution and irreversible damage to this thin biosphere we live in? What are the consequences in designing our babies at conception and growing up in a world where we''re genetically profiled, and rights and discrimination are based on our genotypes?
The Power Grab
Whoever controls the genes controls the 21st century. It''s as simple and profound as that. That''s why intellectual property is critical to this process. It is impossible at this stage to create a gene de novo in the laboratory, a useful gene. You have to go out and find it in nature. It''s an extractive industry, just like oil. So, as you know, the life science companies, the genomic companies are setting up bio-prospecting all over the world. It turns out that all the resources worth exploiting happen to be in the Equatorial Belt and in the Southern Hemisphere. That''s where our biodiversity still remains. They''re looking for microbes, plants, animals and indigenous human populations that may have valuable genes that can be commercially exploited, and as soon as they seize the gene, they claim it as an invention.
If we allow the gene pool to be the political property of governments or the intellectual property of global corporations, I guarantee you that your children will have gene wars in the 21st century.
This is the biggest power grab in history. The human genome project in Canada and the U.S. and around the world is unlocking the secrets of life. It''s exciting, we''re learning about the genetic code of life. I favor it--as long as we understand that the gene is not all-powerful. We''re getting this message from industry that gene is everything. What we''re not told is, every time a gene is isolated--cystic fibrosis, Huntington chorea, sickle cell anemia, the breast cancer gene--it''s claimed as an invention.
All the rare genes are in the South. They''re bio-prospecting, and our friends in the southern countries are crying, "Biopiracy! These are our genes."
But who do these genes really belong to? Brazil is a political construct that''s been here for less than 100 years and probably won''t be here 300 years from now. Evolution''s been here from the dawn of our history. Genes should not belong to countries, and genes should not belong to companies. It''s the legacy that all of us need to steward as a trust.
If we allow the gene pool to be the political property of governments, even in the developing countries, or the intellectual property of global corporations, I guarantee you that your children will have gene wars in the 21st century. It''s the raw resource for the age of biology. We fought wars over minerals and metals during the mercantilist era, and a lot of young people died. We fought wars over oil during the industrial age, and a lot of young people died. This gene pool cannot be enclosed and privatized as political or intellectual property.
When the chemists discovered the chemical elements in the periodic table, they were granted process patents but not product patents. They couldn''t say, "I discovered and isolated helium, oxygen, aluminum, tungsten, uranium, therefore it should be my invention for 20 years." Because these are products of nature, they couldn''t be patented. The genes are exactly analogous. Even if you purify them, distill them and synthesize them, they are a product of nature. Every patent lawyer I know knows this.
But forget the commerce about this. There''s a deeper issue here. Parents teach their children that life has intrinsic value. We introduce our children to all the other life forms, the pets, the birds, the bees. We say, "Honor life." Then, when our children are a little older, we introduce them to the fact that there is something called utility value, and occasionally we expropriate other forms of life to secure our own, but with respect. If our children grow up in a world where they come to think of the life, the blueprints, the genes, the chromosomes, the cells, the organs, the tissues and the organisms simply as intellectual property, as inventions, as utility, we write intrinsic value out of the human algebra.
This is far more devastating than any commercial gain these companies might receive in the short run by having intellectual property protection over their genes. We need to spread the word because there''s not a parent in the world that thinks it makes sense to allow companies to own the blueprints of life, even for 20 years. So what do we do?
We can do the right thing here. Occasionally a generation is called on to do the right thing and it misses the opportunity. I''ll tell you a time when we did the right thing, although it hasn''t been heralded as much as it should. Antarctica was the right thing. We got to the last continent and for some reason inside of our psyche, we decided no government owns it, no company can commercially exploit it. We will hold it as a trust by every government in the world so it can be a legacy for all future generations. It''s one of the great moments because we moved from the territorial imperative to the collective "we." We can do it here.
We''re going to need to craft the great treaty. We''re going to need a treaty, in the next five years, that every country can sign, making the gene pool a trust of the human race on behalf of future generations and all of our fellow creatures who travel with us. It would be the single most important legacy we could leave for the age of biology.
Our ecologists tell us that when we introduce a gene from an unrelated species into a target species, it''s tantamount to ecological roulette each time. We simply don''t know the results. We''re crossing biological boundaries even with one gene introduction. If you know basic ecology, you know about the 10/10 rule: One out of 10 exotic organisms that are brought into a new habitat fit in and develop a niche. One out of 10 that develop a niche becomes a pest. We have dutch elm disease, gypsy moth, chestnut blight, kudzu vine. These are all organisms brought to our part of North America and they love it. We can''t get rid of them; it''s billions of dollars of damage.
At the same time the toxins in genetically modified organisms kill noxious pests, those same toxins are killing other insect life--and finding their way onto our dinner plate.
Imagine the introduction of thousands and thousands of genetically engineered bacteria and viruses and plants and small animals and larger animals, customized and cloned across entire ecosystems, some of them. The sheer magnitude suggests that even if much of it is safe--and I think much of it will be safe--if only a small percentage of these introductions prove to be pests, the magnitude of the problem in a short period of evolutionary history eclipses anything we''ve experienced.
What is really at stake here? We''ve heard a lot about policy. Let''s get down to the actual plants themselves. Monsanto would argue, "We have ended pesticides. No more groundwater contamination." They are correct, up to a point. Let''s start with herbicide tolerance. When you put an herbicide-tolerant gene into that crop and it''s reproducing in every cell, it means you can kill a lot of weeds, but you won''t kill your crop because it''s resistant to the herbicide. The problem is, what makes it effective also makes it dangerous. You''ll kill a lot more weeds. You can use a lot more herbicides because you won''t kill your crop. But you can''t kill all the weeds. That means those weeds that survive build up resistance quicker. And then you have superweeds.
Same with Bt. You take that little Bt toxin gene and place it into the corn. You''re ending pesticides. But when they don''t tell you is, every cell of every corn stalk in the world is now a chemical factory producing toxin 24 hours a day. They are little soldiers armed with chemicals. The amount of toxin introduced by placing it into the code of the plant exceeds in magnitude the amount you''d use with pesticides because now it''s no longer periodic and infrequent like spraying. It''s in there twenty-four hours a day over millions of acres all over the world. That''s why it''s effective. It kills a hell of a lot of insects. But it''s also not discriminating. Will it only kill one or two target insects? It''s either naïve or disingenuous of these companies to believe that it won''t also affect other insects. The monarch larvae is just the beginning. They''ve never tested it against other populations all over the world. They simply don''t know.
I didn''t mention the health. Here''s the problem: It''s the real unknowable. When you place a gene into the code of that crop from a species we''ve never consumed, we don''t know what that protein will do when we put it in our diet through the processed foods. It may be that a Chinese hamster gene won''t cause any problem. We don''t know. We''ve had thousands of years to test ourselves against a lot of different organisms and see which ones we could eat. A lot of people died in this big experiment. Here you''re introducing thousands of novel genes in a short period of time. There''s no way to test everyone''s serum. The British Medical Association for once did the right thing. They said the health implications here are too unknowable and they called for a global moratorium. So for God''s sakes, if the British Medical Association can do this, the rest of us need to catch up.
Then there''s the problem with gene flow. When those genes flow during pollination, there''s no way to account for where they''re going to go. What happens when a weed becomes tolerant to herbicides or tolerant and resistant to pests because it''s picked up the gene? Here, in this part of Quebec, seven years later, an entire region is infested with weeds that are herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant. How do you recall that to the laboratory?
Would you like to know what the insurance industry is saying behind the scenes? The insurance industry says, "We won''t insure against anything except negligence and short-term crop damage for one to two growing seasons." They will not insure against what we call long-term catastrophic spread of genetic pollution. Why?
Post-asbestos, nobody wants to deal with long-range insurance. But even with that aside, what the insurance companies say is, "There''s no way to judge the risk." There''s no methodology in place in which to understand what will happen when a gene flows. We don''t have the supercomputer capability at this point in time to model every perturbation and variation of every gene that flows in any given climatic moment in any given biome in the world.
It''s beyond our possibilities. That''s why, when activists say this is the most uncontrolled experiment in history, from a scientific perspective, they''re damn right.
If the insurance industry says there''s no methodology to judge long-term risks, then how can the U.S. government say that it''s regulating the risk in the environment with scientific tools? The fact is, they don''t exist. It''s a complete, 100 percent sham. There is no methodology to judge risk. It doesn''t exist. Therefore, there should be an indefinite global moratorium on the release of all GMOs into the environment until these issues are resolved, and that could be a long time from now. That''s what we need in place. And we ought to make the companies liable for every single loss until we get that moratorium.
The Perfect Baby
Eugenics is the philosophy of using genetic manipulation to create a better organism or a better species. When we think of eugenics, we think of Nazi Germany and its desire to create the master race that would rule for a millennium. Well, they had about 13 years. Is there a new eugenics with this hard path technology? Absolutely. Does it bear any resemblance to what happened in Germany? None whatsoever. There''s no one talking about forcing us into a brave new world. There''s no conspiracy to create a political super-state. It''s just not happening. The new eugenics has come in stealth, in the back door, unrecognized. It''s friendly. It''s commercial. It''s banal. It''s market-driven. Don''t you want a healthy baby? Companies aren''t doing this because they think they''re going to force something on you. They want you to buy the products.
It''s not a black-and-white Hollywood scenario. It''s very complex.
Within 10 years we''ll have all 140,000 genes mapped. That means, when they''re having babies 20 years from now, they''re going to be able to walk into a medical clinic, get a total genetic profile on their sperm and egg, and know what the baby will look like before conception genetically. Remember, the gene''s not all-powerful. If you knew that when the sperm and egg came together, that your child would be born with childhood leukemia, wouldn''t you want to eliminate the gene in the sperm and the egg? How about sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis? Wouldn''t every parent want the best and healthiest child money could provide and technology could produce?
But where do you draw the line? The ethicists talk about a slippery slope. What if you knew your child was going to have bipolar manic depression and suffer from years of anguish and pharmacological intervention? Wouldn''t you want to eliminate that problem? What about dyslexia? Short stature? You''ve got a small family tree, so your little boy''s going to be the victim of discrimination throughout his life. Wouldn''t you want to spare the suffering?
If we go down this road, we change forever the parent-child relationship in history, as significantly as our changes to the rest of the natural world with GMO introductions in the environment. The parent becomes the engineer. The child becomes the ultimate shopping experience in a postmodern world.
What happens to that child if they grow up and didn''t like the genetic blueprints you laid out for them? And what happens to that child who is born without genetic engineering because the parents couldn''t afford it or decided on ethical grounds that they weren''t going to do it and that child is born with a "disability"?
Are we going to be tolerant and empathetic of this little child, or are we going to say, "That was a mistake in the code, an error, a defect that could have been eliminated? What kind of parents would be so irresponsible they wouldn''t make the changes when they could in the sperm and the egg?"
We already will prosecute women who give birth to a crack cocaine baby or a baby with alcohol fetal syndrome for child abuse in the womb. Why would this be any different? We''d just go back to conception. These are heavy, profound questions. But in the final analysis, you and I have to make a decision, even about our own reproduction. Do we go down this road, or is there an alternative?
Let me remind you that there''s a reason recessive traits are here. Do you want to eliminate all 3,000 recessive genes? Sickle cell anemia is a terrible disease, but as a recessive trait, it prevents malaria. That''s why it''s part of the evolutionary pool. Cystic fibrosis is a terrible disease, but as a recessive trait, we now think in the scientific community it prevents typhoid fever. We''re going to find that every one of these recessive traits has some function or it wouldn''t be still part of our evolution. Do we want to monoculture ourselves to extinction for the short-run benefit of quality control, predictable design, efficient outcomes and utility?
If we go down this road, we change forever the parent-child relationship. The child becomes the ultimate shopping experience in a postmodern world.
The Soft Path
There is a hard path and a soft path. The hard path, interestingly enough, is old-fashioned, primitive, sophomoric. You take that little corn and make it into a warrior armed with genetic weapons for bio-resistance, pest resistance, herbicide tolerance and you send it out there in the fields to fend off the environment. That''s old-fashioned Cartesian logic. And the irony is, in physics and chemistry they''re way beyond that, at least at theoretical levels. They''re talking about complexity theory, dissipated structure, embeddedness, the new intermath. Where are the molecular biologists? They''re back in the 19th century as engineers. That''s why a lot of this won''t work. It''s too sophomoric. But they''re going to try.
What''s the soft path? To use this same knowledge about the genomic makeup, we''re going to profile all the plants. We''re going to know their predispositions for mutation in various biotic environments. We could develop a sophisticated, elegant, 21st-century organic approach to agriculture using the new science. No engineering, no recombination.
Increasingly, as we make decisions about which choices we want for our lives, we--as individuals, family, or country--will ask the question, "Where do we stand on that spectrum between intrinsic value and utility value?" If we start with intrinsic value, we can move toward utility. But I don''t know of anybody who starts with utility first that ever moves toward intrinsic value. So it seems to me that our mission is very clear. There are two great movements coming together, the biodiversity movement and the cultural diversity movement.
They have common roots. Together they''re a new global politics. What they have in common is they both speak to intrinsic value. Both the biodiversity movement and the cultural diversity movement are based on the idea of a healthy respect for the teleology of life. That differentiates both those movements from the commercial sphere, where the value is utility.
If we can get our values straight, and if we can reach out to our fellow human beings, we can make this age of biology a true renaissance and leave a legacy, a vision, that''s really worthy of future generations. Young people especially will be called upon to meet the challenge. In Europe, in the 1930s, the generation did not meet the challenge that was in front of them. This challenge is the biggest one in history. How will we use this new knowledge of biology? To play God? To reengineer a second Genesis? To orchestrate our own Eden, with all the environmental, social and philosophical consequences for the future?
Or will we do the right thing and use this new knowledge to integrate ourselves back into a sustainable relationship with the rest of life so that we can become true partners and really enter an Eden worth entering?
For information about obtaining cassette copies of this program, contact: David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, P.O. Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306 (800) 444-1977, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.alternativeradio.org