The patent of life

The Biotech Century

Jeremy Rifkin <em>Gollancz, 288pp, £15.99</em>

In 1971 a commercial dispute broke out in the US over some bacteria - organisms so small that they can be seen only under a microscope. The case finally reached the Supreme Court almost a decade later. The court's decision was possibly the most momentous legal ruling of the entire postwar period.

Forget the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s that put an end to racial segregation; ignore the court's ingenious reinterpretation of the privacy provisions in the US constitution to guarantee a woman's right to an abortion in the 1970s. Those rulings affected thousands of people's lives, perhaps hundreds of thousands, but the effect was limited to America. The case of Diamond v Chakrabarty, the Supreme Court's ruling over bacteria, will affect the lives of millions of people, ranging from, say, supermarket shoppers in Sunderland to the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea.

In The Biotech Century, Jeremy Rifkin reaches back to 18th- century England and to the enclosure acts as the only reasonable parallel to the effect of the US Supreme Court's decision. Because of Diamond v Chakrabarty, he argues, we have now started on the final stage in the "commodification of the global commons", which began with the first wave of enclosures. He contends that it will end with the commercial enclosure and privatisation of "all the great ecosystems that make up the earth's biosphere".

The decision in Diamond v Chakrabarty was the green light for patenting life and the products of life. Patents have now been granted or applied for on animals ranging from mice to sheep, and on plants ranging from cotton to soya. Genes and bits of genes have been patented by the thousand. Many thousand human genes are the intellectual property of universities, research charities, governments and commercial enterprises.

Companies claim that they need to patent genes if they are to protect the investment of millions of pounds of research and development into new medicines and improved foods. We should be grateful that Diamond v Chakrabarty offers them that protection, since the new medicines and improved foods will come all the faster. So the shopper in Sunderland can no longer tell if their soya margarine is made from genetically modified soya or not. The court case has made the biotech century possible.

Some applications of genetics have already lightened the burden of human suffering from inherited disease, and alleviating human misery can only be for the good. Yet some products, such as Monsanto's soya engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's own weedkillers, seem rather questionable. Farming practice is changing, just as it did under the impact of the physical enclosures of the fields. If they use patented crops, farmers no longer have the right to save some seed from the harvest for their own use next year. Indeed, one company has developed (and patented) what critics call "the terminator gene", a genetic "switch" that can render a plant's seeds infertile at will.

For two decades, Jeremy Rifkin and his Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends have been vocal critics of the direction in which American business is taking the techniques of genetics. It must have been a singularly lonely and disheartening struggle. The big environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been so preoccupied with the nuclear industry that they were slow to realise what Rifkin realised long ago: that the 20th century was the physicists' century, best symbolised by nuclear technology, but that the 21st century will be the century of genetics and of biotechnology.

Thatcherism of a decade ago would have answered that the public interest is best secured by commercial companies competing in the market place to secure their own private interests. Nowadays we are not so sure, and increasingly look to viewpoints other than those of commercial organisations for guidance. Rifkin identifies real and potential risks that we will encounter in the coming age of genetic commerce, and he raises many relevant ethical questions. But at the end one is disappointed that he offers few answers. Capitalism must change its dynamic, he argues; science has to change its reductionist thrust to a more holistic approach. We may agree, but how are these desirable changes to be effected?

As an American, Rifkin inevitably accepts as self-evident the traditional American belief that only capitalism works, and that it does so by meeting the public's expressed economic preferences. Responsibility for the biotech century, he concludes, lies not with corporations, nor with science, but with us. Our preferences as consumers and individuals, he seems to be saying, are what have called the biotech century into being. His final chapter contains no blueprint for action but only a vague call for us all "to put a mirror to our most deeply held values". Yes, but then what should we actually do next?

Tom Wilkie is head of biomedical ethics at the Wellcome Trust

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.