Biotech critic says contamination could destroy organic foods

As organic industry leaders expressed optimism about its future, Jeremy Rifkin, founder and president, The Foundation on Economic Trends, and noted critic of biotechnology, raised alarms about the industry's future due to contamination by genetically modified crops. "This is a life and death struggle for your industry," he says.

In a keynote address at Natural Products Expo East, Rifkin gave an overview of the latest advances in biotechnology and predicted that the natural/organic products industry could disappear in the next five years unless it stops the proliferation of GM crops. "You are in big trouble," says Rifkin. "Genes are crossing now, and your products are becoming contaminated."

Curse or renaissance

According to Rifkin, biotechnology has created two scientific paths: a "hard path" that manipulates nature with recombinant DNA technologies and an emerging "soft path" that uses genomics to obtain a better understanding of genes. Rifkin says the soft path will lead to better stewardship for more sustainable agriculture. Knowledge of genomics will improve classical plant breeding. "The age of biology could be a curse or a renaissance based on sustainable living," he says.

Rifkin criticized the patenting of genes, calling it a "high-tech" colonialism" that will lead to a view of life as "intellectual property" owned by corporations. He believes that the gene pool is a "global commons" that should be shared by all.

Coexistence not an option

According to Rifkin, there are now 70,000 field tests on GM plants, animals, and insects being conducted worldwide. He predicted that while some GM products may not cause problems as they are introduced, others will become pests and, once released into the environment, they can't be recalled.Coexistence between biotech and organic, according to Rifkin, is not an option. "You cannot survive, you cannot have compatibility," he says. "You won't have a market in the next five years."

The industry must take action by fighting for a moratorium on new GM crops and mandatory labeling of GM foods. "Labeling is key," says Rifkin. "You have to be more aggressive talking about these things. There is no way you won't have contamination."
(November 2002)