Rifkin Redux

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

Rifkin Redux


Byline: Henry Miller, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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