Saturday, July 8, 2006

Mendacity and misrepresentation are nothing new from anti-meat, anti-technology, anti-capitalism activist Jeremy Rifkin. His statements about biotechnology threatening “a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust” and civilization standing perilously “on the cusp of a frightening new era of cloning, genetic engineering and eugenics” are absurd. No less so his speculations in the early 1980s that a small-scale field trial of a gene-spliced soil bacterium could change weather patterns and disrupt air-traffic control.

Mr. Rifkin has moved on in recent years to make predictions and speculations in other realms — that Americans’ consumption of beef causes domestic violence, and that Europe is becoming ascendant while America is languishing, for example — none of them credible or correct. Or even interesting.

Like a dog digging up an old bone, he has returned to his bete noire: plant biotechnology. The new wrinkle is he now touts a technique for plant breeding called “marker assisted selection” (MAS) as a replacement for the far more precise, predictable and powerful technique of gene-splicing, which enables plant scientists to move genes from one source to another.

According to Mr. Rifkin, MAS offers all the advantages of genetic improvement without the supposedly significant risks to human health and the environment posed by gene-splicing applied to plants, a “primitive” technology.

But the risks are Mr. Rifkin’s enduring fantasy; and MAS is a blunt instrument, incapable of transferring genes from one species to another or of custom-tailoring genes — to program a plant to synthesize a new vitamin or pharmaceutical, for example. MAS is a method of conventional plant breeding in which researchers locate DNA sequences in a plant’s genome consistently associated with desired traits, such as higher yield or disease resistance. These can then be used to screen for and predict the presence of the desired traits in progeny of traditional crosses.

Characteristic of any Rifkin exposition, the proposal makes no sense to those with expertise in the field. “This tract is typical Rifkin material,” according to Alan McHughen of the University of California, Riverside. “He still twists information to fit his agenda.”

Mr. Rifkin’s agenda remains opposition to biotechnology. His disparagement of gene-spliced crops and foods derived from them was ridiculous and unfounded 20 years ago, and it is delusional today. These crops have drastically reduced use of chemical pesticides and encouraged agronomic practices that reduce soil erosion. They have enhanced yields and both increased revenues to farmers and offered them some insurance against catastrophic losses from pests and diseases.

Crops made with gene-splicing techniques are grown by 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries on more than 100 million acres annually. Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients. Through all this experience, there is not a single documented case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem. Scientists are virtually unanimous that gene-splicing techniques are essentially a refinement of earlier ones and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk. Like robotics, fiber optics and supercomputers, gene-splicing is no more than a widely applicable tool. Yet Mr. Rifkin continues his crusade against existing biotech foods and pharmaceuticals and lobbies to prevent development and testing of future products. He has interfered with — and even tried to roll back — the research, development and marketing of products that feed the planet and prevent and cure fatal diseases.

He has condemned crop plants that will require smaller amounts of agricultural chemicals and water for cultivation. And all the while, he has distorted facts extravagantly and often made them up. His suggestion that MAS could replace gene-splicing is tantamount to suggesting drum brakes and conventional tires should now replace disk brakes and radials.

The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, by his own admission, tried to be sympathetic to Mr. Rifkin’s views toward biotechnology but was overwhelmed by the “extremism” and “lack of integrity” in Mr. Rifkin’s anti-biotechnology diatribe, “Algeny,” and concluded Mr. Rifkin “shows no understanding of the norms and procedures of science.”

Mr. Gould, a renowned scholar, was appalled at Mr. Rifkin’s poor distortions: ” ‘Algeny’ is full of ludicrous, simple errors — I particularly enjoyed Mr. Rifkin’s account of Darwin in the Galapagos. After describing the ‘great masses’ of vultures, condors, vampire bats and jaguars that Darwin saw on these islands, Mr. Rifkin writes: ‘It was a savage, primeval scene, menacing in every detail. Everywhere there was bloodletting, and the ferocious, unremittent [sic] battle for survival. The air was dank and foul, and the thick stench of volcanic ash veiled the islands with a kind of ghoulish drape.’ ” “Well,” said Mr. Gould dismissively, “I guess Rifkin has never been there.”

In fact, whether the subject is economics, politics, cosmology, ecology, science or technology, Mr. Rifkin has never “been there.” Some of us try in our professional lives to build edifices of one sort or another, to make society richer and more equitable, to make life less “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But people like Mr. Rifkin devote themselves to retarding progress and to creating only uncertainty and anxiety.

Finally, the coup de grace from professor Gould: “I regard ‘Algeny’ as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work.” But then he had not seen Mr. Rifkin’s later writings.

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” was selected by Barron’s as One of the 25 Best Books of 2004. He was a Food and Drug Administration official from 1979 to 1994.

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