The perils of the biotech century

Will genetic engineering one day go the way of nuclear power? Jeremy Rifkin thinks it should, but ar

After more than 40 years of parallel development, the information and life sciences - computing and biology - are fusing into a single, powerful force that is laying the foundation for the biotech century. Increasingly, the computer is used to decipher, manage and organise the vast amounts of genetic information that will be the raw resource of the new global economy.

The biotech century promises great riches: genetically engineered plants and animals to feed a hungry population; genetically derived sources of energy and fibre to build a "renewable" society; wonder drugs and genetic therapies to produce healthier babies, eliminate suffering and extend the human lifespan. But a question will haunt us: at what cost?

The new genetic commerce raises more troubling issues than any other economic revolution in history. Will the artificial creation of cloned, chimeric and transgenic animals mean the end of nature and the substitution of a "bio-industrial" world? Will the mass release of thousands of genetically engineered life forms into the environment cause catastrophic genetic pollution and irreversible damage to the biosphere? What are the consequences of the world's gene pool becoming patented intellectual property, controlled exclusively by a handful of corporations? What will it mean to live in a world where babies are genetically engineered and customised in the womb, and where people are increasingly identified, stereotyped and discriminated against on the basis of their genotype? What are the risks we take in attempting to design more "perfect" human beings?

The question is not about the science but about how we apply it, and the great debate of the biotech century will be about which of two broad alternatives we choose to adopt.

The first is the Baconian view, with which we have become so familiar that we forget that there are any other approaches at all. Francis Bacon saw nature as a "common harlot" and urged future generations to "tame", "squeeze", "mould" and "shape" her so that "man" could become her master and the undisputed sovereign of the physical world. Many of today's best-known molecular biologists are heirs to the Baconian tradition. They see the world in reductionist terms and themselves as grand engineers, continually editing, recombining and reprogramming the genetic components of life to create more compliant, efficient and useful organisms that can be put to the service of humankind.

Others, although equally rigorous, take a different approach. The ecological scientists see nature as a seamless web of symbiotic relationships and mutual dependencies. They see the Earth and its living things as a single organism - the biosphere. They favour more subtle forms of manipulation, which enhance rather than sever existing relationships.

Agriculture offers a good example of these two different approaches. Molecular biologists insert alien genes into the biological code of food crops to make them more resistant to herbicides, pests, bacteria and fungi. They envision these engineered hybrids living in a kind of genetic isolation, walled off from the larger biotic community, and ignore the environmentalists' fears of genetic pollution.

Many ecologists, by contrast, use the new genomic information to help them understand how environmental factors affect genetic mutations in plants. Instead of genetic engineering, they use the new scientific knowledge to improve classical, sustainable farming methods, such as breeding, pest management, crop rotation.

Similarly, in medicine, many molecular biologists focus their research on somatic gene surgery, which pumps altered genes into sick and disordered patients. They try to cure those who are already ill. Other researchers (including a small but growing number of molecular biologists) use new genetic information to explore the ties between genetic mutations and environmental triggers. They hope to create a better approach to preventive health. Their aim is to stop damaging genetic mutations occurring in the first place.

It needs to be emphasised that a number of genetic diseases appear to be unpreventable and immune to environmental mediation. But more than 70 per cent of all deaths in the industrialised countries are attributable to what physicians call "diseases of affluence", such as heart attacks, strokes, breast, colon and prostate cancer and diabetes. People vary in their genetic susceptibilities to these diseases. However, their onset can be triggered by environmental factors - high levels of cigarette and alcohol consumption; diets rich in animal fats; pesticides and other poisonous chemicals; contaminated water and food; polluted air; and sedentary living habits.

The mapping and sequencing of the human genome is providing researchers with vital new information on recessive gene traits and genetic predispositions for a range of illnesses. Yet little research has been done, to date, on how genetic predispositions interact with toxic materials in the environment, the metabolising of different foods and lifestyle.

So one approach - the hard path - uses the new genetic science to engineer changes in the very blueprint of species. The other approach - the soft path - uses the same genetic science to create a more integrative and sustainable relationship between existing species and their environments.

Some argue that there is room for both approaches, each enriching the other. In reality, the commercial market favours the hard path for the obvious reason that for now, at least, that's where the most money can be made. Although there is a growing market for organic foods and preventive health products and services, far more money is being invested in biotech agriculture and illness-based medicine. If this is to change, it would take a profound shift in the way we think about science and its applications.

But a change of sorts is possible. It may now seem inconceivable that hard-path genetic engineering, with all its promise, could be rejected. Yet look what happened to nuclear energy, once considered the greatest power source ever developed. It has been partly or largely abandoned in many countries, thanks to growing public awareness of its true financial and environmental impact.

Society could choose to accept some uses of the new genetic science and reject others, just as we have done with nuclear technologies. For example, we could make a solid case for genetic screening - with the appropriate safeguards - to predict the onslaught of disabling diseases, especially those that can be prevented with early treatment. The new gene-splicing technologies could also lead to a new generation of life-saving pharmaceutical products. But we could take a quite different attitude to the use of gene therapy to make hard-path corrective changes in human sperm, eggs and embryonic cells. These techniques, we might say, would affect the evolution of future generations and, therefore, carry far greater and more unpredictable dangers.

It needs to be stressed that it's not a matter of saying yes or no to the use of technology itself and never has been - although many in the scientific establishment like to frame the issue this way, leaving the impression that anybody opposed to their particular technological vision must be anti-technology. Rather, the question is: what kind of biotechnologies will we choose in the coming biotech century? Will we use our new insights into the workings of plant and animal genomes to create genetically engineered "super crops" and transgenic animals? Or will we use them to advance ecological agriculture and more humane animal husbandry practices? Will we use the information we're collecting on the human genome to alter our genetic make-up? Or will we use it to pursue new, sophisticated health prevention practices?

We should keep open as many options as we can. This means that, when choosing between alternative applications, we should prefer the less radical - the one least likely to create disruptions and externalities. "First, do no harm" is a well-established principle in medicine.

The biotechnology revolution will affect us all, more directly, forcefully and intimately than any other technological revolution in history. Yet until now, the debate has engaged a narrow group of molecular biologists, industry spokespeople, government policy-makers and critics. With the new technologies flooding into our lives, the moment has arrived for a much broader debate, one that extends beyond professional authorities and experts on both sides and includes the whole of society.

The age of biology brings with it a new type of politics. In the industrial age, politics fell along a spectrum that ran from left to right. In the biotech century, we shall see a new spectrum with the intrinsic value of nature on one pole and the utility value of nature on the other. Increasingly, decisions over the introduction of new biotechnologies, as well as safeguards and regulations, will be influenced by where the sensibilities of citizens, communities and countries lie between these extremes. This is the deeper meaning to be gleaned from the recent controversy over GM foods.

Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, Washington DC, is the author of "The Biotech Century: how genetic commerce will change the world" (Phoenix/ Gollancz). He will give a lecture to the "New Statesman" annual conference at the London School of Economics, 8-9 September.