Splice World

By Rifkin, Jeremy | Nation's Cities Weekly, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Splice World


Rifkin, Jeremy, Nation's Cities Weekly


While the last century belonged to physics and chemistry, the next one will belong to life sciences. By splicing, recombining, inserting and stitching living material, we will be able to engineer life itself. But, as Jeremy Rifkin argues, genetic engineering raises profound environmental, social and ethical concerns

For years, futurologists have heralded the Information Age, championing the computer as the prima donna of the global economic revolution. But now titans in the computer industry and Wall Street insiders are just beginning to understand that the computer is merely the handmaiden to a much more profound business, namely genetic commerce.

They are pouring money into the new fields of "bioformatics" and "genomics" and in the process fusing computers and genes together to create a powerful new technological and commercial revolution that is beginning to remake our world. Both Silicon Valley and the investment community are realising that the central mission of the computer in the coming "Biotech Century" is to manage and organise genetic information -- the raw resource of the new global economy.

For the first time in history, scientists can engineer life itself, reprogramming the genetic codes of living entities to suit our own economic needs. Genes are already being used to grow new kinds of biodegradable plastics, manufacture new fibres and construction materials, engineer new forms of energy, produce foods and pharmaceuticals, and create new medical therapies.

Indeed, our lives are likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next few decades than in the past 1,000 years. An increasing amount of food and fibre will be grown indoors in tissue culture in giant bacteriabaths. Animal and human cloning will likely be commonplace, with replication increasingly replacing reproduction.

Individuals will be able to obtain their own detailed genetic readout, allowing them to gaze into their own biological future and plan their lives. Parents may choose to have their unborn children gestated in artificial wombs. Genetic changes could also be made in human embryos to correct diseases and disorders, as well as to enhance mood, behaviour, intelligence and physical traits.

The short term benefits of this extraordinary new power are seductive. Yet, if history has taught us anything, it is that every new technological revolution brings with it both promises and perils. The more powerful the technology is at expropriating and controlling the forces of nature, the higher the price we are likely to pay in terms of disruption and destruction wreaked on ecosystems and social systems that sustain life.

The new genetic commerce raises more troubling issues than any other economic revolution in history. Will the artificial creation of cloned, chimeric and transgenic animals mean the end of nature and the substitution of a "bio-industrial" world? Will the mass release of thousands of genetically engineered life forms into the environment cause genetic pollution and irreversible damage to the biosphere? What are the consequences for the global economy and society of reducing the world's gene pool to patented intellectual property controlled exclusively by a handful of life-science corporations?

Despite the risks, global life science companies are quickly manoeuvring to exert their influence and control over the new genetic commerce. Typical of the trend is the decision by four petrochemical giants -- Monsanto, Novartis, Dupont and Hoechst -- to sell off part or all of their chemical divisions and anchor their research, development and marketing in biotech-based technologies and products.

Although there is little media coverage and scant interest in public policy circles, the consolidation of the life sciences industry by global commercial enterprises is now rivalling those made in the other great technology arena of the 21st century - computers, telecommunications, entertainment and the information services. …

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