Beloved Uncle Harry was diagnosed six months ago as having colorectal cancer, the second most common type of cancer among males in America. Had the disease struck him back in 1985, his chances for long-term survival would have been slim. He would have undergone a brutal regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He would have suffered months of excruciating pain and debilitation. Abdominal surgery to remove the tumor might have been possible, but even if successful, there was a very good chance that he would have had to endure for the rest of his life the discomfort and embarrassment of a colostomy bag, to collect his body's wastes externally. But today, in the 1990s, biotechnology offers a whole range of new and far less invasive therapies than were available only 10 years ago.
Uncle Harry's tumor was detected early through the use of a monoclonal antibody diagnostic test, one of the wondrous fruits of biotech research. His doctors immediately began treating him as an outpatient with tumor necrosis factor (TNF), another biotech product. Within weeks, Uncle Harry's life-threatening tumor died and disappeared. To prevent a recurrence of the disease, he was vaccinated with an anti-idiopathic cancer vaccine, which biotechnicians created from his own tumor cells. The vaccine gets his body to manufacture antibodies that vigilantly patrol his bloodstream, ready to kill any new tumor cells that may develop. Now, six months after treatment of his cancer began, Uncle Harry is as clinically healthy as before, and he missed only a couple of weeks at work and experienced only minor discomfort.
* * *
Joe Green truck farms potatoes on the Delmarva Peninsula on the Atlantic seaboard. His latest crop is just about ready for harvesting, but the meteorological service is predicting that unseasonably cold weather will strike the area during the night. Although he's concerned, Joe hopes that the new P. syringae bacteria that he sprayed on his potatoes earlier in the growing season will perform as advertised. His periodic field tests have shown that the ordinary frost-enhancing P. syringae have largely been replaced by the new, ice-resistant variety.
Joe remembers all too well how he almost went under five years ago, when an early frost destroyed his whole crop and he was nearly unable to keep up payments on his farm equipment. That same year, the price of potatoes almost doubled in the grocery stores because the early onset of cold weather had destroyed much of the supply.
Joe wakes up in the morning anxious to see how his crop has stood up to the below-freezing temperatures. As he walks through the fields, he finds only minimal frost damage. His potatoes will have the week that they need to grow to marketable size, and his financial situation should be excellent. His neighbor Mike Smith, who is skeptical of these newfangled techniques, lost nearly half his crop in the overnight cold snap.
* * *
Neither of the situations described above has happened yet, but by the end of this century such wonders could be pouring forth from America's biotechnology industry—cures for cancer, better vaccines, more efficient and nutritious food plants and animals, and much more.
Already, researchers are using genetic-engineering techniques to produce monoclonal antibodies, which detect the presence of disease by binding very specifically to characteristic proteins. The San Francisco biotech firm Genentech has just recently cloned genes that make tumor necrosis factor, which kills tumor cells. Medical researcher Heinz Kohler of Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, New York, is developing an anti-idiopathic cancer vaccine. Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and the biotech company Advanced Genetic Sciences, Inc., have already modified P. syringae bacteria to eliminate their tendency to promote ice crystals on the plants that they inhabit. These genetically engineered bacteria alone could save billions of dollars of crops lost to frost damage each year.
But there are people who don't want any of this to happen, who don't want those Uncle Harry and Joe Green scenarios—and many others like them that we can't even imagine yet—to come true. The most fervent and prominent opponent of the infant industry of biotech is one Jeremy Rifkin, a Washington, D.C., political activist and writer.
From a tiny suite of offices near Dupont Circle in downtown D.C., Rifkin has ambitiously set out to stop biotechnology cold in its tracks. He shows up relentlessly at federal regulatory hearings, and he has launched a number of successful lawsuits against biotechnology scientists and companies. He is a star witness for journalists and broadcasters, for whom his portentous criticisms of biotechnology provide the dramatic counterbalance to reports of biotech progress.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Rifkin in the cramped confines of his Washington offices, wanting to get both a sense of this man and a clearer view of his opposition to biotechnology. Compactly built, fortyish, balding, and sporting a bushy black mustache, Rifkin dresses in a style one might call "academic-casual." Despite a pronounced tendency to lecture, he is very personable—an engaging conversationalist whose eyes constantly gauge the effect of his words on his listener. As we talked, he sat calm and relaxed, quite evidently at ease in his familiar role as biotechnology's most prominent critic.
Before settling on his anti-biotech campaign in the late '70s, Rifkin, I had discovered, had participated in a string of political causes—protesting the Vietnam war, seeking to indict American businessmen for corporate crimes, and agitating for a radical redistribution of wealth, among other causes.
His latest venture is the rather grandiosely titled Foundation on Economic Trends, which he established in 1977—the perch from which he now conducts his crusade against biotechnology.
Staffed by Rifkin, co-director Nicanor Perlas, and several part-timers, the foundation does not release figures on its yearly budget, Perlas says. But last year the New York Times reported FET's annual budget as $100,000, a figure that FET assistant Don Davis agreed with when contacted this year. Rifkin told me that the foundation is funded by royalties from his books (eight in print, with a ninth on the way) and his lecture fees. According to the Times, Rifkin charges $2,000 for a one-day appearance, $3,000 for two days; and Perlas says that Rifkin gives about 50 lectures a year.
When I asked Rifkin to clarify his present activist goals, he made it quite plain that his desire is to block the development of biotechnology permanently. He cautioned me not to mix him up with the public-interest groups that want to regulate biotechnology. "My position," he told me, "is not regulating it. It's not wanting it." Paradoxically, even though biotech promises great advances in human well being, he says he opposes it because it "undermines the idea of the sacredness of life."
Are his views, then, grounded in a particular religious perspective? His "experience of the world," he replied, "suggests that there is something in the human experience that goes beyond materialism and the dictates of economics." Seeing biotechnology as a great threat to our sense of ourselves and the natural world, he believes that the only moral course is to refuse to use its techniques to alter the genetic codes of any organisms. So whatever the ambiguity of his reasons, Rifkin's conclusion is clear and definite: biotechnology must be stopped.
The scientific discoveries that led up to the biotechnological techniques Rifkin fears are only a generation old. In 1953, British biologists Francis Crick and James Watson first identified deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA, the substance making up every living cell's genes. They also described how DNA's now-familiar double-helix structure separates into two strands to serve as templates for duplicating its original structure, ensuring genetic continuity as cells divide. The intricate dance of proteins, sugars, amino acids, and enzymes is precisely choreographed by each cell's DNA molecules.
In 1972, Paul Berg, a molecular biologist at Stanford University, invented a process whereby genetic segments of DNA can be spliced—separated from one another and then attached to other segments of DNA, a technique now known as "recombining" DNA. Berg was later awarded a Nobel prize for his discovery, which was indeed to have profound effects in many fields.
Scientists now regularly take DNA from one organism and insert it into another, wholly different organism, where it continues to function. This is how, for example, the gene for human insulin has come to reside in a common bacterium, E. coli. These organisms happily produce large quantities of human insulin, which is now commercially available as a replacement for pig and beef insulin that diabetics had used for decades. Long-term clinical studies are under way to determine whether its use will prevent or significantly lessen the medical problems associated with the use of animal insulin, such as deterioration of the kidneys and blood vessels. Already, diabetics who use human insulin have had fewer problems with allergic and immunogenic reactions.
The medical uses of biotech are among its most wondrous promises. Biotechnology companies are currently developing other exciting, new products:
• Interferon A and B, which are produced naturally in small quantities by the human body, are thought to be useful in combating multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease of the nervous system from which 250,000 Americans suffer, with no effective treatment. Interferon may also help fight cancer.
• Blood Factor VIII, the blood-clotting substance that hemophiliacs lack, has been bio-engineered and could be commercially available in a few years. It would be far cheaper than blood transfusions—and with no AIDS risk.
• By fusing antibody-producing cells with specific types of cancer cells, biotechnicians can now produce large quantities of cells that make only a specific antibody (a substance contained in the blood that fights disease and infection). These "monoclonal antibodies" can detect the presence of specific diseases and are therefore very useful as diagnostic aids. Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, are using them to develop a blood test to detect deadly liver cancer in its early, treatable stage. The substances are also being used to develop vaccines against organisms such as hepatitis A and B viruses and the malaria parasite, which every year afflicts 200 million people in tropical countries.
In agriculture, the prospects are equally bright. Biotech can produce food plants and animals that are more nutritious and less costly to raise. Self-fertilizing plants that are highly disease-resistant are already being developed. Such genetically modified crops would significantly lessen the need for dangerous pesticides and expensive fertilizers. Vaccines against the disease "scours," which kills young animals through dehydration, are already in use, and hormones to increase milk production will soon be available. And it is undoubtedly the case that ingenious researchers will be able to devise many more applications in the future.
Despite the benefits that biotechnology promises, even some molecular biologists were uncomfortable with the implications of recombining DNA during the early days of the technique. In 1973 and 1974, groups of concerned scientists publicly called for a worldwide moratorium on recombinant-DNA experiments until the risks could be assessed. The moratorium lasted for two years. Then in 1975, 140 molecular biologists gathered at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, and drafted a set of guidelines to govern experiments with recombinant DNA.
Currently administered by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) of the federal government's National Institutes of Health (NIH), the guidelines were established on the basis of preliminary assessments of the hazards posed by recombinant-DNA research and specify four levels of physical containment for gene-splicing experiments. Since 1976, as more information on the safety of gene-splicing has become available, the guidelines have been gradually relaxed.
While the rules governing biotech research were being developed, the media often uncritically passed along apocalyptic claims, voiced by a number of activists, about the supposed hazards of recombinant-DNA research. In 1976, for example, the New York Times Magazine published a terrifying article, "New Strains of Life—or Death," written by Liebe Cavalieri, a professor of biochemistry at Cornell University. Cavalieri suggested, among other outlandish things, that recombinant-DNA research could lead to accidental outbreaks of infectious cancer. Many scientists immediately condemned the article as being wild speculation and fantasy. Nevertheless, the article—published, after all, in the staid Times—caused a considerable uproar and led to a series of congressional hearings in 1976 and 1977 to consider whether the federal government should slap restrictions on the new field. Then in mid-1977 Sen. Edward Kennedy (D–Mass.) proposed a harsh regulatory scheme for biotech research, modeled on the Atomic Energy Act of 1947.
Meanwhile, Alfred Vellucci, the mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was attempting to ban gene-splicing work in that community. Vellucci feared that dangerous, genetically modified bacteria might escape from Harvard University's laboratories. Amidst national media attention, a citizens board evaluated the danger but in the end decided that the NIH-RAC guidelines were largely sufficient for controlling such experiments.
Since the public furor of the mid-'70s over recombinant DNA, the issue of the dangers of gene-splicing has nearly faded away, largely because biologists have discovered that organisms naturally exchange DNA among themselves anyway, and also because none of the predicted disasters have occurred. It is instructive, in fact, to consider some of the lessons that scientists learned from that period. Biologist James Watson, one of biotech's grandfathers, for instance, rued his participation in the call for a moratorium on biotech research. "Scientifically, I was a nut," Watson once remarked in 1978. "There's no evidence at all that recombinant DNA poses the slightest danger." And biologist Waclaw Szybalski of the University of Wisconsin, reflecting on the process of relaxing the NIH regulations, said, "Much blood, sweat and tears went into changing the regulations. The people who undid all that damage should get a monument." Biophysicist Burke K. Zimmerman, an active participant in the legislative debates over regulating genetic engineering in the 1970s, wrote in his 1984 book Biofuture: "In looking back, it would be hard to insist that a law was necessary, or, perhaps, that even guidelines were necessary."
Yet Jeremy Rifkin remains adamantly opposed. Despite scientific evidence for the safety of biotech and the public's growing anticipation of its benefits, Rifkin fears the future of genetic engineering, so much so as to devote his life to blocking its development. Why? In search of an answer, and to assess how formidable a foe he is, I dug into Rifkin's complex personal history of political activism, going through old documents and books from the '70s and speaking with people who have sided with him, with some who have worked against him, and, of course, with Rifkin himself.
Jeremy Rifkin graduated from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 and the next year received a master's degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Among the accomplishments he lists in his activist curriculum vitae are helping organize student opposition to germ-warfare projects at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and helping sponsor "the first national rally against the Vietnam War" in 1967. Later Rifkin served as national coordinator for the National Committee for a Citizens Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam. And in 1971, Rifkin became a founding member of the radical New American Movement (NAM), which maintained ties with many other leftist groups, including the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and the American Section of the Philippine Communist Party.
In the November-December 1971 issue of the New American Movement's newsletter, Rifkin, looking ahead to the mid-'70s, argued for the creation of a "Peoples Bicentennial Commission": "Aside from engaging numbers of people for the first time who might not feel comfortable relating directly to the New American Movement," Rifkin suggested, "the Peoples Commission would provide a unique forum for mass media exposure over the next four years. This mechanism could be used to raise political awareness and to promote the New American Movement and other radical activities and demands." Even then, Rifkin was aware of the power of the media and of how important it is to attract the press's attention.
In 1972, NAM went with Rifkin's idea and created a Peoples Bicentennial Commission (PBC) with Rifkin at its helm. The group was highly successful in generating a lot of media attention in the years leading up to the US Bicentennial in 1976. For example, the PBC mobilized 40,000 protesters against President Ford's Bicentennial "kick-off" speech at Concord, Massachusetts, in 1975. The purpose of the demonstration, Rifkin told Newsweek at the time, was to "issue an economic declaration of independence calling for a full-scale redistribution of U.S. corporate wealth and power."
The PBC's activities were funded by its 20,000 members' annual dues and received further aid from Stewart Mott, the General Motors heir and well-known promoter of leftish causes. But the group's first grant came from the taxpayers, via the National Endowment for the Humanities, which gave $7,210 to the PBC. Rifkin is nothing if not resourceful.
In a PBC-sponsored anthology of leftist essays, How to Commit Revolution American Style (1973), Rifkin's introduction candidly states: "This book is not about how to counter the Bicentennial campaign: it is about how to capitalize on it by building a mass revolutionary movement for a radically restructured America." In his own contribution to the volume, he argued that "the new American Revolution must bring about fundamental changes in our social, economic, and political institutions." The radical restructuring he envisioned involved the typical indictment of economic freedoms and their attendant prosperity in this century: "Human rights are placed above property values; Personal interests can be identified with the collective interest; Health care is a human right rather than a marketplace commodity going to the highest bidder; Technology is made to serve rather than to exploit man and the environment; Production for profit and war is replaced by production for human needs and peace; Control of the economy is taken from the very rich and returned to the worker and consumer."
Rifkin's PBC acted on its principles in a variety of creative ways. In its "Campaign Corporate Exposure," launched in 1976 "to mark the 200th anniversary of capitalism," the PBC sent tape recordings to 8,000 wives of America's top corporate executives urging the women to question their husbands about corporate wrongdoing and corruption. The PBC also announced that it was sending letters to over 10,000 secretaries who worked for major corporate executives, offering a $25,000 reward for "information that leads directly to the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of a chief executive officer of one of America's Fortune 500 corporations for criminal activity relating to corporate operations."
Little came of these activities. For his part, Rifkin would not talk to me about his PBC days.
After the Bicentennial passed without any evidence of a "mass revolutionary movement" coming into existence, Rifkin regrouped as the Peoples Business Commission, intended to focus on two or three corporate issues per year. One of them, reported Dun's Review in April 1977, was the pharmaceutical industry's experiments with DNA. And Rifkin's concern was "that there must be public control over 'the new forms of life' that might be produced." Rifkin was not a major player in the public debate over the safety of recombinant DNA that was taking place at the time; but he was finding his issue. That year, the PBC changed its name once again, to the Foundation on Economic Trends.
Rifkin burst upon the genetic engineering scene with a protest at a meeting of molecular biologists at the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. Harvard bacterial physiologist C. Bernard Davis recently recalled the incident for The New Republic: "Just as the session was about to begin, we became aware that Rifkin's people had settled in the audience all around the perimeter. As David Hamburg [then president of the Institute of Medicine] began to speak, they all jumped up singing, 'We shall not be cloned.' Then they unfurled banners and linked them all around the room. We were their hostages. We were being terrorized."
Questioned about this incident, Rifkin insists that the conference participants "knew what was planned and had agreed to allow it." Philosopher Daniel Callahan, director of the Hastings Center and a conference participant, agreed that Rifkin's protest had been previously arranged—although he is not sure that everyone was aware of it. He says that he personally found it to be "more amusing than threatening." Rifkin's subsequent activities leave no doubt that amusement is not his aim.
It's not that Rifkin denies the great benefits to be had from biotechnology. Sitting in his office in Washington earlier this year, he voiced his fear: that "there is something inherent to the technology which makes the power in the process inordinate, and that is eugenics."
Having raised the specter of the suspect science of improving the human race by the selection of parents—the only genetic means available when the term eugenics was coined at the turn of the century—Rifkin went on to compare the power of biotech to nuclear physics, which spawned the atomic bomb.
It is not that people will be forced to accept genetic-engineering technology, Rifkin admitted. His worry is that they will be lured to it by the promise of its benefits: "People want healthier babies, more efficient plants and animals, a better GNP, and more security for their offspring." In trying to obtain these benefits via biotechnology, people will be making choices "about what are good and bad genes."
Why would Rifkin find it entirely unacceptable that people should be able to exercise such control over their fates? Part of the answer is simply fear. He worries "that in attempting to 'perfect' the human species, we will succeed in engineering our own extinction."
Rifkin also sees biotech as opening a Pandora's box of somewhat bizarrely conceived social problems: "Scientists now are increasingly able to identify certain genetic traits that cause diseases such as Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease," he said in an interview published last year in East West Journal. "Do you tell the person or not?…Will an employer want to hire somebody if that person's medical chart shows when he or she is going to come down with certain diseases, and possibly even when they're going to die? How will the insurance companies deal with this? How will the government?"
But a more fundamental reason for Rifkin's opposition to biotech is that this new science doesn't fit his own vision of an ideal world order. "If we begin taking genetic traits and crossing species borders for short-term, utilitarian gain, we're likely to undermine the delicate relationships between species in the ecosystem," Rifkin charged in the East West Journal interview. Do we have a right to tamper with nature "for whatever our interests happen to be?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't think we have that right."
A chart of Rifkin's intellectual development is interesting. At one time he believed capitalism to be in its terminal stages—a common notion among New Left, Marxist-influenced activists in the late '60s. After the collapse of the "movement," hope for the demise of capitalism resided for some in the apocalyptic visions of radical environmentalism, which featured ominous predictions about overpopulation and the imminent exhaustion of nonrenewable resources. Either humans would call a halt to "progress," establishing limits to growth, or there would be disaster. In either case, Rifkin, along with other radical environmentalists, looked forward to a new age characterized by a simpler, more communitarian society.
When the environmental apocalypse failed to materialize, Rifkin looked to a rather different catalyst for the changes he so desired. By 1979—and just when groups like the Moral Majority were attracting a good deal of media attention—he was hailing the upswelling of evangelical Christianity. In his book The Emerging Order: God in the Age of Scarcity, he portrayed fundamentalist Christianity as a "liberating force that could topple the prevailing ethos and provide a bridge to the next age of history." In place of "the Protestant work ethic that has dominated the past 600 years of the age of growth," he looked forward to "a new Protestant conservation ethic, ready-made for the new age of scarcity the world is moving into."
In his next book, published in 1980, Entropy: A New World View, Rifkin took the imminent "new age of scarcity" as a major theme. It is ironic that Rifkin's predictions of widescale scarcity may well be undercut precisely by the advent of biotechnology-based weapons against hunger and disease.
But Rifkin is inspired by a different vision. His anti-biotech fervor is fueled by a desire to replace present-day science with what he calls "empathetic science." This "could lead into a participatory relationship with our environment," he explained to me during our interview. "Do we develop our research capabilities in science to look at new forms of sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, in order to clean up the environment we've created?" That's a participatory relationship. And as Rifkin portrays things, the alternative is to "leave the environment intact and…develop new therapeutic interventions to genetically engineer human beings to live in the filth."
Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Harvard University paleontologist, mirrored the opinions of the vast majority of the scientific community in a review of Rifkin's popular 1984 book Algeny. (Algeny is a coined word standing for "genetic alchemy." The new science was to be ridiculed by association with the medieval combination of chemistry and magic.)
In his review of Algeny, published in Discover magazine, Gould scored it "as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don't think I have ever read a shoddier work." Rejecting an attempt by Rifkin to condemn biotech as a bourgeois development, Gould wrote: "If Rifkin's argument embodies any antithesis, it is not left versus right, but romanticism, in its most dangerous anti-intellectual form, versus respect for knowledge and its humane employment. In both its content and presentation, Algeny belongs in the sordid company of anti-science. Few campaigns are more dangerous than emotional calls for proscription rather than thought."
Despite Rifkin's muddled thinking, he has been remarkably effective in blocking or delaying the progress of some aspects of genetic engineering. He cares passionately about what he believes in, and the mechanisms of governmental regulation are so intricately intermeshed that one such passionate individual can be a tiny speck of grit that brings the gears to a halt. From years of activist experience, Rifkin had learned well how to manipulate the regulatory and legal systems. This is the tack he took in his next move after the orchestrated protest at the National Academy of Sciences meeting in 1977.
In 1979, Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends filed a "friend of the court" brief supporting the office of the US Attorney General in its contention that the federal patent laws should not be extended to cover the new, genetically modified organisms. Rifkin correctly perceived that if genetic engineers could patent their products and techniques and thus obtain property rights to them for a defined period of time, this would be a tremendous incentive for the development of commercial biotechnology—individuals and firms could then put time and money into research and be assured of earning economic rewards for doing so.
In the landmark case Diamond v. Chakrabatry, the Supreme Court ruled in June 1980 that such organisms can be patented. It was one of the rare instances in which Rifkin has ended up on the losing side of a major court battle over biotechnology. Since the Chakrabatry decision, over 200 patents for biotechnological products and processes have been issued.
Rifkin fights his anti-biotech campaign simultaneously on several fronts. He routinely testifies before various federal governmental bodies, including, for example, the House Science and Technology Subcommittee.
One major focal point of Rifkin's activity is the National Institutes of Health, where he has become a fixture at meetings of the NIH's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. He could do little to block gene-splicing experiments already authorized under the RAC's physical-containment guidelines, since those precedents had already been set. However, Rifkin found a major opportunity to strike a blow against biotech in 1983, when two plant pathologists at the University of California at Berkeley, Steven Lindow and Nicholas Panopoulos, came before the RAC seeking authorization to field-test a genetically modified bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae.
The P. syringae bacteria in the proposed Lindow-Panopoulos experiment live naturally on the leaves of many plants. When the temperature drops to freezing, the bacteria manufacture a chemical that promotes the formation of ice crystals. The frost kills the plants, and the bacteria can then feast on the rotting remains. Lindow and Panopoulos's engineering feat was to delete the single gene that activates this process. They dubbed the resulting bacteria "ice-minus." In their proposed field test, the scientists planned to spray two rows of potato plants with "ice-minus" bacteria to see whether these plants could better resist frost damage.
Several points should be kept in mind about this experiment: No new genetic material was to be introduced into the environment. Naturally occurring ice-resistant P. syringae had already existed in the environment. And ice-resistant P. syringae had already been created by other techniques and in the 1970s had been released into the environment with no ill effects. Moreover, if the experiment were successful, a significant proportion of the $6 billion of crops lost annually to frost damage in the United States might be saved.
Over Rifkin's objections, the RAC found the experiment to be safe and environmentally benign and authorized the proposed field test. He persisted, taking the matter to US District Court. In a major victory for the anti-biotech crusade, Judge John J. Sirica issued an order in May 1984 blocking the two scientists from proceeding and barring the NIH from approving any other field tests. Sirica based his order on a narrow procedural issue—the NIH had failed to comply with federal environmental regulations requiring an environmental impact statement.
The NIH and the University of California appealed Sirica's decision, and in February 1985, the appeals court upheld the injunction against the "ice-minus" experiment but overturned the ban on all NIH approvals of other field tests. The court's decision requires the NIH to give "adequate environmental consideration to each deliberate release experiment funded by the agency."
At this point it is unclear whether "adequate consideration" means that each and every future field test must be accompanied by an environmental impact statement. An NIH source who is familiar with the litigation told me that preparing such statements is a very time-and money-consuming process, which, if applied to each proposed new field test, could significantly slow the progress of biotech R&D. However, this NIH source believes that the less onerous "environmental assessment" will satisfy the appeals court's requirement.
A subsequent federal-court decision helps only somewhat to clarify the regulatory morass—a ruling in which Rifkin found himself on the losing side. It holds that only NIH-funded biotechnology research needs NIH approval—in addition to approval from another regulatory agency (such as the Department of Agriculture)—in order for genetically modified organisms to be released into the environment. Researchers whose funding is private, in contrast, need only get approval from a single, relevant agency for such experiments.
These federal-court rulings have perhaps set the stage for years of regulatory wrangling. Already, scientists and biotechnology companies have put on hold several other field tests of genetically modified organisms until the legal and regulatory issues are resolved. Stanford scientists Ronald Davis and Virginia Walbot, for example, have postponed an experiment to genetically modify corn plants in the field. And the biotech firm Agracetus has put off plans to test disease resistance in genetically modified plants.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Rifkin recently filed another biotech-related suit in US district court. Rifkin is seeking an injunction against US Department of Agriculture (USDA) experiments attempting to transfer the gene for human growth hormone into pig and sheep ova. The USDA experiments are designed to make it possible eventually to increase significantly the speed of growth and the height and weight of food animals. Success promises to boost world supplies of protein for human consumption.
Joining Rifkin in his suit against the USDA is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a 200,000-member animal-welfare organization. Rifkin and the HSUS argue in their suit that "each creature has a fundamental identity as a member of a particular species. Animal breeding, without due regard and respect for the nature or 'telos' of an animal, may violate the animal's fundamental nature and convert it into something quite different." Quoted in a New York Times article, Rifkin asserted that the USDA experiments violate "the moral and ethical canons of civilization." In an article in the HSUS News, Michael Fox, the scientific director of the HSUS, wrote of the USDA experiments: "Since the animals' bodies and not their minds are altered by genetic engineering, the specter of their psyches being trapped in an alien body could become a reality." (The gene for human growth hormone has in fact already been successfully incorporated in mice. Some of the mice with the gene grew to nearly twice the size of ordinary mice.)
Rifkin's suit against the USDA is part of his attempt to ban all transfers of genetic material between mammalian species. In September 1984, Rifkin asked the NIH to incorporate such a ban into its guidelines. The following month, the RAC voted 22 to 0 against his proposal, noting that the potential benefits—such as more effective treatments of human and animal diseases and the development of more efficient food sources—"make it a moral imperative that we strongly oppose the blanket prohibition of this class of experiments."
During this particular meeting, some members of the RAC "charged Mr. Rifkin with trying to incite fears in the public by using half truths and dubious interpretations of the known facts of genetics," the New York Times reported. One speaker noted that adopting Rifkin's rationales about species integrity would call into question the success of the world's health organizations in totally eradicating smallpox—that "might have been a violation of a species' integrity, but it was hardly mourned by any except possibly the smallpox virus itself." Meanwhile, the USDA case is still wending its way through the federal courts.
Rifkin also invests considerable effort in establishing coalitions—or at least the appearance of such—with other organizations and individuals whose interests intersect in the campaign against biotech. When I interviewed him, Rifkin told me that he has managed to interest "environmentalist groups, animal-welfare organizations, the peace community, the women's health wing of the feminist movement, the right-to-lifers, and the evangelical churches" in various aspects of biotechnological development. I checked out this claim and found that his coalition-building success has had its ups and downs. One episode stuck out somewhat prominently and reveals some of Rifkin's tactics.
In June 1983, amidst a great deal of media attention, Rifkin managed to produce a letter signed by 63 citizens of varying degrees of prominence, including Roman Catholic bishops, Jewish leaders, the heads of many Protestant churches, and a few scientists. The signatories were persuaded to sign a resolution calling for a ban on experiments that would alter the genetic characteristics passed from one human generation to the next.
Rifkin had had dealings with church leaders during his time with the Peoples Bicentennial Commission, when the PBC had been commissioned by the National Council of Churches to write a church guide to the Bicentennial observance. According to his résumé, that guide, The Light in the Steeple, was used in more than 65,000 churches. That experience, in addition to the welcome response to the fundamentalist revival that he gave in his book The Emerging Order, had favorably positioned him for building this astonishingly diverse religious coalition.
Among the signers of the resolution were Dr. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority; Rev. James T. Draper, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Pat Robertson of the 700 Club and president of the Christian Broadcasting Network; Rev. James R. Crumley, Jr., presiding bishop of the Lutheran Church in America; Dr. J. Robert Nelson, professor of theology at Boston University; Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Bishop James W. Malone, vice-president of the US Catholic Conference; and Dr. Richard C. Halverson, chaplain of the US Senate.
Rifkin took the opportunity to accompany the resolution with a "theological letter," which, though not endorsed by those who signed the resolution, did provide the press with something to fill out their columns. The "theological letter" bordered on calling for a total ban on all genetic engineering that would lead to improved medical treatments and not just a ban on human germline intervention.
"Once we decide to begin the process of human genetic engineering, there is really no logical place to stop," Rifkin charged. "If diabetes, sickle cell anemia, and cancer are to be cured by altering the genetic make-up of an individual, why not proceed to other 'disorders:' myopia, color blindness, left handedness?" he asked rhetorically. Better, he was concluding, to leave people suffering from diabetes, sickle cell anemia, and so on.
Later, however, a number of the signers of the resolution repudiated the accompanying "theological letter." As Boston University theologian J. Robert Nelson noted, "there was very little theology in the letter." Moreover, it "went beyond what we said in the resolution," Nelson stated, "and has fantasies about changing human traits."
Nevertheless, Rifkin skillfully used the occasion to present his views to the media—no matter what would come after, the public would recall that prominent religious leaders had expressed grave reservations about bioengineering. It was even unimportant that genetic intervention in the human germline is probably decades away as a practical matter. As bacterial physiologist Bernard D. Davis has recently written, "We are unlikely to face eugenic uses in this century, because the traits one might be tempted to manipulate, such as memory, intelligence or motor skills, are so complex, and involve so many genes, that the prospects for their meaningful control are very distant."
Later, two of the signers of Rifkin's resolution, Bishop Crumley and J. Robert Nelson, were members of the National Council of Churches of Christ's Panel on Bioethical Concerns, which last year issued a preliminary policy statement on biotechnology. Entitled Genetic Engineering: Social and Ethical Consequences, it is now being reviewed by the NCCC's 31 member communions. A final decision on the NCCC's biotechnology policy is expected in 1986. Rifkin told me that he was not consulted on this NCCC policy statement, but its tone, he said, is reminiscent of his "theological letter."
Despite Rifkin's claims to have interested environmentalist groups in biotechnological issues, I found that the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation have no policy stand on biotechnology at present. And Jack Doyle, director of the Environmental Policy Institute's Agricultural Resources Project, told me that Rifkin "has a role as a gadfly" and has been "important in stimulating public debate" on biotechnological issues. Nevertheless, Doyle said, the EPI, though concerned about some developments, sees "some potential benefits from biotechnology," not the least being "disease- and pest-resistant agricultural plants" that would diminish the need for many of the substances that so worry environmentalists.
According to Lauren Kenworthy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC "did not take a stand against deliberate release of genetically modified organisms." The NRDC, says Kenworthy, is "sort of staying away from the Jeremy Rifkin kind of approach." In an interesting admission, she said that he is a "very useful person to have out there, because he defines the left field."
Rifkin's claimed ties to the religious right are odd, however, given his vision of a radically new economic order. When I probed Moral Majority spokesman Cal Thomas about this, he said that Rifkin "is addressing some important issues from a non-religious perspective." He described Rifkin as "an incredibly intelligent and rational human being with whom we agree on some issues."
Thomas, it turns out, had read Rifkin's Algeny and taken away from that book the notion, agreeable to the fundamentalist right, that "most scientists have given up on evolution." But when I pressed to find out whether the Moral Majority favors a complete ban on biotech, he demurred. Not without a parting caution, though: "It's like fire. It has the potential to cook your food and warm your house, but it could also burn your house down."
Are the risks from biotech that Rifkin continually cites real? The vast majority of scientists say no. Rifkin himself admitted to me that the Lindow-Panopoulos ice-minus experiment that he successfully derailed was "probably benign." He opposed the experiment, he told me, not only because he wishes to halt all biotechnological development. It would have been the first field test of organisms modified by recombinant-DNA technology, he explained, and was therefore an important opportunity to set legal precedents.
Speaking for the biotech industry's trade group, the Industrial Biotechnology Association, Executive Director Harvey Price has summed up the attitude of professional genetic engineers toward Rifkin: "Generally speaking, the industry believes that most of Mr. Rifkin's fears are imaginative and frivolous." "In the last ten years," Price pointed out during an interview on nationwide radio, "no one has gotten even so much as a sniffle from using recombinant DNA technology." He rejects Rifkin's "idea that nature is so finely tuned that one doesn't want to try to disturb it." What "exists out there includes disease, drought, floods, hunger, and human suffering," Price noted. "Why should we accept this result so readily without trying to improve it?" Price described Rifkin's ideas as "an elitist attitude of someone who is not sick, who is not hungry, who is not suffering." It's an attitude, he concluded, that "is simply objectionable."
What about the "ethical" issues that Rifkin has raised concerning biotechnology? I asked Arthur Caplan, associate director of the Hastings Center and a philosopher specializing in issues of science and medicine, about those concerns. "Normally, I am in the first rank of worry warts, but biotechnology does not concern me very much," Caplan told me. "I am not impressed with the safety concerns. They are not extraordinary." Caplan believes that "in principle, there is not a lot wrong with attempts to improve the human genotype." He concludes, however, that "the technology is a long way from the point of causing any eugenics concerns."
I asked Caplan about Rifkin's argument that it is ethically wrong to transfer genes between mammalian species. Caplan responded: "I find it hysterically funny that Rifkin wants to ban such transfers." He pointed out that human beings' efforts at domesticating and crossbreeding plants and animals over the centuries, while not as dramatic as the results achievable through the use of biotechnology, had already succeeded in transferring genes between many species. "Three generations hence, people will think that worrying about biotechnology will be akin to our ancestors' worries about flying an airplane," he predicted.
John Arras, a bioethicist at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, remarked to me that "the recombinant-DNA debate is a good example of how hysterical fears can get the upper hand, but it is also a good example of how cautiously and responsibly the scientists themselves have approached the issues raised by biotechnology." When I asked him about Rifkin, Arras said, "I get the impression that he wants to throw out the baby with the bath. He is probably overblowing the dangers [of biotechnology] and underestimating our ability to stave off abuses."
Winston J. Brill, a professor of bacteriology and vice-president of Agracetus, a company specializing in agricultural biotechnology, cogently addressed the issue of safety in agricultural biotechnology in a recent issue of Science: "Traditional agricultural practices continually improve useful crops and microbes by taking advantage of new [naturally occurring] genetic modifications. In almost all cases the exact nature of these modifications is unknown. There has not been any special concern about new variants. By comparison, genetic engineering will make well-characterized and specific modifications. Thus there does not seem to be any reason to expect greater problems arising from recombinant organisms in agriculture than from organisms produced through traditional practices."
Despite a shaky start and Rifkin's legal maneuvers, biotech regulation is developing in a relatively harmonious manner. The biotechnology industry views government regulation as inevitable and is working closely with the USDA, the EPA, and the Food and Drug Administration to establish a smoothly operating regulatory scheme. If Rifkin manages to alarm many other activists and the general public, however, the United States could conceivably suffer the problems that the Dutch faced when, in the 1970s, an unduly frightened public demanded a total ban on recombinant-DNA research in the Netherlands. Only now is the damage caused by Dutch alarmists being undone, and as a consequence, the Dutch biotech industry is behind its competitors in other countries.
In the United States, about $2 billion in venture capital has been invested in the last four years in over 200 startup biotechnology firms, according to Robert Kunze, a managing partner at the San Francisco investment and venture capital firm Hambrecht and Quist. And the National Institutes of Health has awarded some $570 million in biotech-research grants to universities in 1985 alone.
In Japan and America, more-established private companies are spending about $1 billion a year on biotech R&D. And no wonder—Kunze predicts that the market for the "miracle" products of gene-splicing will be $1 billion a year by the end of the 1980s. The market for industrial enzymes—capable, among many other things, of purifying water and degrading toxic chemical wastes—will be $500 million a year by the end of this decade. By the turn of the century, the market for genetically engineered agricultural products will be $5 billion. It adds up to Kunze's prediction that the biotech industry will "rank as one of this century's top five industries."
Without doubt, future developments in gene-splicing will pose ethical questions. The initial goal of much of the engineering of human genes would be to fight against genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and others. Later, complex traits such as intelligence and memory might be enhanced by such intervention, and the practice could obviously raise ethical questions. But as Harvey Price of the Industrial Biotechnology Association has said: "We have always faced new technologies—electricity, air travel, antibiotics. In each case we go forward and we look for real problems that develop and try to react to them as best we can. So, I think instead of the abstractions which Jeremy Rifkin keeps talking about, we should focus on some of the things that are actually being done in the commercial industry." Things like new vaccines, cures for cancer, more-nutritious food, and more environmentally benign industrial and agricultural practices.
In his own way, Jeremy Rifkin is an American success story. He was once investigated by Congress for radical activities. Now he advises congressional committees. He has, despite all odds, managed to make his passionately held beliefs widely known and has forced leaders in government, industry, and education to listen to him. He has been extremely resourceful—if not always successful—in building ad hoc coalitions in support of his views over a wide political spectrum.
Rifkin, when pressed, concedes that Americans will most probably embrace the technology he so abhors. But he is determined that if we do, it will not be until he has used every strategy he can devise to prevent that outcome. One wonders, in fact, if Rifkin sees the grand irony of the situation: having spent a good deal of his life predicting and promoting various "revolutions," he now opposes one that is genuinely about to happen—the biotech revolution—and one that, by almost everyone else's account, actually has a chance of improving the lot of humankind.
Ronald Bailey is a free-lance writer who lives in New York. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Fear and Loathing of Biotech’s Bright Future".