A leading critic of gene technology has attacked the biotechnology industry at a scientific conference in Switzerland. Jeremy Rifkin accused life sciences companies of taking unacceptable risks with human health and trying to patent life.
As probably the world's most-outspoken opponent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Rifkin was invited to Berne by the Swiss environment agency to participate in a discussion about the risks of gene technology.
Clearly not everyone was happy at his presence. A Nobel-prize winning scientist in the audience got so carried away by Rifkin's arguments, he subjected him to a personal attack. He also lashed out at the Swiss Environment Agency for inviting Rifkin and paying his fare.
But Rifkin did not just come to criticise. He brought with him an alternative vision for the future of gene technology. The life sciences companies, he explained, are choosing the "hard path", one in which they engineer the genes of living organisms to produce "better" drugs for genetic illnesses and hardier, more productive crops.
Rifkin slams this approach for the risks its poses to human health and the environment. "We are introducing substances into the human body that have never been consumed before. There is no way of knowing what effects they will have."
Rifkin cites allergic reactions that will only be identified once people become ill or die. He also warns of "genetic pollution", where crops engineered to manifest certain qualities, such as resistance to insects and pesticides, may spread their genes through pollination and trigger unpredictable reactions in other plants.
His alternative is the "soft path", where the knowledge acquired through genetic research is used to enhance human health and agriculture, but no genetic splicing takes place. An example of the soft path would be for a life sciences company to enter into "a network for preventive health, where they are not primarily selling drugs," he says. "Instead their responsibility would be to maintain patients' health throughout their lives."
Rifkin acknowledges that profits from drug sales would fall. But he says the life sciences companies could make more money by working with health insurance companies, hospitals and employers, who could pass on savings derived from a healthier population.
His "soft path" is designed to overcome both the health and environmental risks associated with GMOs. However, it's unlikely to win over the majority of scientists who believe that the technology poses negligible risks, which are well worth taking. They say human beings have been exposed to exotic genes throughout history, pointing to imported crops like the potato and rice, as well as food that has been "modified" intentionally by humans such as nectarines, kiwi fruit, and numerous other foods.
They also ridicule concerns that genetically modified crops will "contaminate" unadulterated crops, saying horizontal gene transfer has occurred throughout history.
Judging by the intensity and animosity of the debate, these issues are unlikely to be settled until one side is vindicated by conclusive evidence. Even that may be hoping for too much, given that both supporters and opponents of GMOs tend to rubbish the results of any study suggesting they may be wrong.
A seemingly more clear-cut but equally controversial issue is patenting. Life sciences companies are demanding the right to patent genes they modify, claiming the "new" gene is an invention like any other. The Swiss life sciences giant, Novartis, recently won the right to patent human and animal organs and cells.
Rifkin finds the concept outrageous, saying it is tantamount to patenting life. He argues that the companies did not "invent" genes, but merely altered them, and should therefore be permitted only to patent the process, and not the genes themselves.
Scientists at the meeting did not mount any defence of their companies' patenting policy, with one saying it was a "secondary issue", which didn't concern him. On this issue, it appears many scientists believe that governments should define the laws.
The problem, as Rifkin points out, is that patents for genes have already been awarded, a practice he considers illegal.
This issue is likely to come to the fore shortly. Within weeks, scientists in the United States will finish mapping the human genome - a complete list of all our genes. Rifkin says that once that happens, the life sciences companies will make a mad dash to patent as many genes as possible. It's then the patenting battle will enter the courts.
by Jonas Hughes