Contaminated crops, contaminated universities

A UC Berkeley professor has taught his last class at the university, despite the fact that his tenure was supported by his colleagues 32-1. The reason? He and one of his graduate students discovered that Monsanto’s genetically modified corn has contaminated much of Mexico’s native maize, despite a ban on GE corn that was supposed to prevent them from cross-breeding. Their findings were published in the prestigious journal, Nature.

Unfortunately for Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor in the Environmental Science Department, the biotech industry "owned" the university. Chapela objected loudly to concessions the university made in exchange for a $25 million dollar donation to the College of Natural Sciences, which included patent rights on research as well as a direct influence on the choice of research grants. This, addition to Chapela’s findings in Mexico, hardly endeared him to the university’s Budget Committee who were anxious not to incur the displeasure of big donors. The Budget Committee was instrumental in the decision not to grant him tenure, despite protests by the chair as well as the dean.

Another professor at the university remarked,

“I have come to the conclusion that Aristotle could not have made tenure here,” he said. “Honesty is not something that’s appreciated at this campus. The Mario Savio Steps and the Free Speech Cafe are two monuments to hypocrisy.”

To add to the controversy, Monsanto used dirty tactics to try to ruin Chapela’s reputation:

In an attempt to save face, Monsanto hired the Bivings Group, a Washington PR firm. To discredit Chapela and Quist’s research, an e-mail criticizing their methods and findings was sent to the mailing list of AgBioWorld?, a major portal for the biotech industry. The supposed author of this e-mail, “Mary Murphy”, was soon revealed to be a fictional character created by someone "working for Bivings" or "clients using our services,” as Todd Zeigler, head of the PR firm’s online department, admitted in a BBC interview. This confession came as a result of an investigation by a British anti-GMO campaigner, Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Information Network, who traced the origin of the e-mail to a computer operated by Bivings.

The revelation was too late to save Chapela and Quist’s research from being called into question because of Murphy’s critique. The journal Nature had already issued a partial retraction.

Subsequent research has verified the pair’s findings: GE corn IS cross-pollinating with native maize species.

The following two articles are fascinating reading:

Ousted Professor Holds Final Class

Contamination at Berkeley: The Profit Motive, Academic Freedom and the Case of Ignacio Chapela