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Thursday Book: Prophet of doom changes tune

I FIRST met Jeremy Rifkin in 1992, when I was reporting on genetic engineering for New Scientist. Rifkin, billed as America's most outspoken opponent of biotechnology, was in London to recruit Britons to his Pure Food Campaign. As an opening salvo, he had convinced some 1,500 top chefs in the US to display the campaign logo: a DNA double helix with a red line across it, bearing the words "We do not serve genetically engineered food". In his evangelistic style, Rifkin warned of the dangers of Frankenfood. "We are determined that genetically engineered food will not reach the market," he said then.

Six years later, genetically engineered tomatoes and soyabeans are on supermarket shelves throughout the world, and many more such products are set to follow. Even the word "Frankenfood" is in retreat; it does not feature in The Biotech Century. But if Rifkin has conceded that battle, has he lost the war? In his latest book, Rifkin claims there is still time for public opinion to shape the "new biotechnology revolution".

"Although the window is rapidly closing, we still have an opportunity to raise some of the tough issues," he avers.

But Rifkin now seems to have adopted a softer tone. He is keen to acknowledge that there are no easy answers; he tells us that it no longer makes sense to be simple-mindedly either for or against a cultural phenomenon as complex as modern genetics.

"Genetic engineering represents our fondest hopes and aspirations as well as our darkest fears and misgivings," he asserts. The biblical themes of both doom and deliverance are never far from the surface. He paints a vivid picture of "a second genesis" coming soon to planet Earth, courtesy of transnational commerce.

Biotechnologies are our "dream tools", he says. They offer the promise of salvation from much human disease and suffering. But will it all turn sour? Rifkin is worried about the patenting of genes and life-forms for commercial profit and about a likely resurgence in the practice of human eugenics.

He envisages the fabrication of human organs from cloned cells or foetuses grown in artificial wombs. Bioinformatics, the marriage of computers and genes in giant databases, "forever alters our reality at the deepest level of human experience," he claims. He points out the risks to animal welfare, to small-scale agriculture and to natural ecosystems, as transgenic plants and animals are created for a variety of ends.

The Biotech Century provides a whirlwind tour of contemporary genetic R&D, and raises a host of legitimate concerns linked to biomedical and agricultural research today. This is an intelligent and surprisingly nuanced commentary on recent developments, albeit from the perspective of a seasoned campaigner.

Rifkin's opponents have long learnt to respect his populist touch. Through his organisation, the Foundation on Economic Trends, based in Washington DC, Rifkin has in recent years mobilised hundreds of women's organisations as well as leading representatives of the major religions to speak out against gene patenting.

But can even a master-lobbyist muster enough grassroots support to prevent the dawn of the Biotech Century?

Rifkin's battle cry is muted by an uneasy tension that runs through the book. He seems torn between two contradictory impulses: to demonstrate the power of genetic technologies to transform our lives, and on the other hand to throw cold water on all the hype coming from scientists and entrepreneurs desperate to attract financial backing. Are we determined by our genes, or is the problem just that we increasingly think we are? Rifkin seems uncertain.

In one storyline, he argues that our "reinvention" of nature and human identity as something fluid and dynamic rather than fixed and static is paving the way for a warm reception for Brave New World genetic technologies. In his view, this mindset makes it easier for us to regard organisms as something we can create or modify. Yet, ironically, it is possible to argue just the opposite. Viewing creatures as constantly evolving entities can help to counter the essentialism of the genetic determinist. As a result, the organism is no longer thought of as something that can be manufactured by tinkering with its genes, but as part of a complex web of natural relationships that develops over time.

Notoriously slippery, such metaphors of nature make unreliable debating tools. Rifkin is on firmer ground when he dissects the commercial interests driving innovation in biotechnology. Yet he seems unable to point to many signs of popular resistance to the current directions of research, nor to offer practical suggestions on how to set in train a "broad and deep" debate over the benefits and risks of the new science.

He is surely right to conclude that the biotech revolution raises fundamental questions about the nature of science, the kinds of new technologies we introduce into the marketplace, and the role of commerce in the intimate affairs of biology. But where do we go from here?