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