Since 1977 Jeremy Rifkin has been the pebble in the shoe ofthe biotech industry, or worse, perhaps, the leak in the rightfront tire that the guy at the service station can't seem to fix.Time and again, Rifkin's had the guys in genes tied up in court.
Rifkin claims not to be a Luddite, and even backs the use ofgenetic engineering under certain circumstances. But "there ismore than one approach to science," he told BioWorld, andgenerally, he favors the softer approach. Technologicalintervention should be "prudent, elegant and conservative.Never intervene radically or dramatically." His underlyingtheme is "sustain, don't drain the environment."
"Contrast genetically engineered food and agriculture toecologically based organic agriculture and food," he said. "Genesplicing continues to operate on the principle of molding,squeezing, manipulating nature, while the ecological approachis based on the idea of partnership with the environment."
Recently, Rifkin's organization, the Foundation on EconomicTrends in Washington, D.C., helped prevent bovine growthhormone from reaching the market, despite the billion dollarsthat Eli Lilly and Co, Upjohn, American Cyanamid and Monsantohave collectively sunk into the product.
The foundation is following up on this victory with the PureFood Campaign, an effort to keep foods free from foreign andmodified genes. "We believe biotechnology foods will be deadon arrival," said Rifkin. The campaign has the support of 1,000food growers, 2,000 "celebrity" chefs, and "hundreds of foodprocessing companies from Altadena to Health Valley" havejoined the campaign, which will be announced within a month.There's even a logo for genetic chastity: a double helix with aslash through it.
The next big battle will be joined shortly. Now that the U.S.Patent and Trademark Office has breached the de factounderstanding it had with Congress that animal patentingwould not proceed until Congress had thoroughly examined itsimplications, Rifkin plans to impose his own moratorium. Publicopinion, he said, is on his side. He cited the Europeanparliament's vote last week on the same subject: 178 in favorof a moratorium vs. 19 opposed, with 27 abstaining.
Rifkin opposes germ line gene therapy, but supports somatictherapy, as well as some use of biotech pharmaceuticals, withseveral caveats. But he is angered by non-medical uses of somepharmaceuticals, such as human growth hormone. The NationalInstitutes of Health, he said, justifies trials of the growthhormone in short but medically sound teen-aged boys byclaiming that their shortness should be reclassified as a disease,since the boys are discriminated against. Rifkin argues that thislogic could lead to all kinds of new diseases. The trials, he said,are painful and risky and lack a medical objective.
Somatic therapy for the diseases such as heart disease orenvironmentally related illnesses should not replacepreventive measures, such as diet control and environmentalprotection, he argued.
Rifkin supports genome research, but only if individuals' rightsto genetic privacy are protected. One measure of his clout was acongressional hearing in October 1991, where Rifkin teamedwith NIH Director Bernadine Healy; James Watson, thendirector of the U.S. human genome project; and gene therapypioneer W. French Anderson to testify on the dangers ofmisusing genetic information. At the time, the journal Naturesuggested that Rifkin's shrewd politicking provided strongincentives for the three representatives from NIH to bepresent; the budgets for genome research at NIH and theDepartment of Energy included a requirement that at least 4percent of the funds go to research on social and ethical issues,thanks, in part, to Rifkin's lobbying efforts.
Rifkin takes his own philosophy seriously enough to eschew inhis own diet meat and fowl, caffeine, and even the products ofthose socially conscious heroes of "green" dessert loverseverywhere, Ben and Jerry. Rifkin pointed out that his personalhabits go easy on the planet, as well as his body. His diet is lowon the food chain and his driving -- his 8-year-old Honda has28,000 miles on it -- is parsimonious.
-- David C. Holzman Special to BioWorld
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.