Thursday Book: Prophet of doom changes tune

THE BIOTECH CENTURY JEREMY RIFKIN, GOLLANCZ, pounds 16.99

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?

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015
    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall