Stakeholders weigh in on UCB GMO complex

This Thursday, Global Justice Ecology Project helped bring together the first civil society forum on synthetic biology issues that convened environmental justice, labor and biotech watchdog groups. Aside from the important aspect of bringing together key voices, the event garnered significant local media coverage, in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Berkeley journalist and blog heavy-weight Richard Brenneman just sent along his take on the event, published at Eats Shoots ‘n Leaves.  – Jeff Conant, for Global Justice Ecology Project

Stakeholders weigh in on UCB GMO complex

2012 March 30 — A forum critical of UC Berkeley’s plans to ramp up genetic engineering research at a planned massive new second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Richmond drew a capacity crowd to the David Brower Center Thursday night.

One speaker after another ripped into the potential consequences of the university’s grandiose plans, including the human and environmental devastation certain to be wrought on Africa and Latin America.

We will be posting several articles on the gathering, but we will begin with a focus on some of the ways the lab’s end products could impact other lands targeted by the lab’s emphasis on using genetic engineering to transform living plants into fuel.

A resonant voice from Nigeria

Environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and chair of Friends of the Earth International, ripped into comments made a day earlier by Jay Keasling, UC Berkeley professor, founder of three genetic engineering companies, and head of the Department of Energy-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute [JBEI], which is slated to relocate to the new Richmond campus.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Keasling had dismissed criticisms by Bassey and others that any successful program to use genetically altered microbes to create fuel from plant matter would wreak ecological and human devastation in Africa, Latin America, and Asia:

Nor would food croplands be sacrificed for new biofuels, Keesling [sic] said. The countless acres needed would be wastelands where only otherwise useless plants like switchgrasses would be grown for biofuel, he said. “There’s really no market for that kind of land,” he said.

“Even with the hype,” Bassey said, it’s certain that the target is the tropics. “Even all the biomass in our forests can’t provide all the energy that is required,” he said.

“Thast so-called ‘wasteland’ is somebody’s land, Bassey said. The world’s pastoralists thrive on lands marginal or unsuitable for farming. “People do live in the Sahara desert. People do live in the Kalahari Desert. People do live in the desert here in the United States.”

The one sure result of a global land grab is conflict, he said. A second is the introduction of genetically modified organisms [GMOs] into more nations where they’ve been previously banned.

Bassey, whose words flow in resonant, almost musical bass tones, is a winner of the 2010 Right Livelihood Award, often called the Alternate Nobel Prize because it is awarded by the Swedish legislature the day before the Nobels are handed out in the same city, Stockholm. The prize is given for “working on practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today.”

Much of Bassey’s work has centered on the devastation wrought on his country by oil companies like Chevron, which “has sunk its claws and talons into Richmond,” and, like Shell, BP, and other oil companies is moving into agrofuels.

As Time magazine noted three years ago

It wasn’t an oil spill that made Nnimmo Bassey an environmentalist. It was a massacre — the 1990 assault by Nigeria’s armed forces on the village of Umuechem, where residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta had accused the Shell Petroleum Development Company of environmental degradation and economic neglect. In two days of violence, 80 people died and nearly 500 houses were destroyed. “We woke up from a sleep and … everything was collapsing around us.”

Read the rest.

He also warned that, once unleashed, GMOs are bound to spread.

With biotechnology posed to trigger massive lands and the human misery that follows, “Humanity must regain its memory of being human. . .and agree that greed and conflict will not get us anywhere.”

“We are not just on this planet for ourselves.”

The view from Brazil

Maria José Guazzelli of Brazil’s Center for Ecological Agriculture focused on the impacts of the metastasis of sugar cane plantations to fuel her own nation’s massive ethanol industry.

And it is sugar cane which is fueling the champagne dreams of investors in the Jay Keasling-launched Amyris which, with the financial backing of French oil giant Total and other corporateers, is using cane fibers left over from ethanol processing and genetically engineered microbes in a thus-far unsuccessful attempt to launch a new agrofuel industry in Brazil.

Already “a huge monoculture which is linked to global warming and deforestation,”

Guazzelli said, sugar cane has been embraced by the Brazilian government, which has estimated that cane plantations could cover as many as 160 million acres — an area equivalent to the state of Texas.

And while the government initially declared the Amazon Basin off-limits to industry expansion, officials are now saying the basin’s west central region may be suitable for still more planting. “Now we have added rain forest.”

Just as the Portugese introduction of cane during the colonial era depended on slave labor, so does it today. “Sugar cane in Brazil means slave labor.”

The work is hard, dangerous, and poorly paid, and, as we noted before, reports of actual slavery — confined workers kept in miserable conditions and unable to leave — are common on the corporate-owned latifundia.

Land grabs are seizing soil suitable for food crops and devastating both rain forest and savannah, Guazzelli said, but the nation’s Development Bank continues to pour money into the industry.

A dissenting view from campus

Ignacio Chapela knows what its like to feel  the wrath of the genetic engineering corporateers.

The UC Berkeley plant microbiologist has been targeted by companies in the GMO game, with attempts to destroy his reputation and ultimately cost him his job — finally winning tenure only thanks to a lawsuit.

Chapela and David Quist found proof that genes from genetically engineered corn had jumped the border and grafted themselves into the genomes of native varieties in Chapela’s homeland, Mexico — whose indigenous people had nurtured the grass-liketeosinte over the course of millennia into modern-day maize.

Monsanto launched a black propaganda campaign, and university administrators denied tenure even though the faculty of his own college had voted overwhelmingly in his favor.

“I am really privileged to be among the very few faculty members who would even set foot in this gathering,” Chapela began.

DNA can’t be understood as an isolated molecule in a lab, he said. “It is really the living context of DNA that people use.

While hundreds of billions have been sunk into commercialization of the fruits of genetic engineering and synthetic biology — the craft of piecing together chemical segments to create to-order strands of DNA — the industry has yet to turn a profit, Chapela said.

But with the vast flood of corporate cash pouring into the nation’s universities, including BP’s $500 million agrofuel-focused grant to UC Berkeley, “it has had a very effective outcome” in the silence of potential scientific critics, “either because they’re afraid or hopeful they will be able” to capture some of that corporate cash.

“I worry mostly about the takeover of the last line of defense the public has to confront technological craziness.”

Chapela said the influx of corporate money puts scientific credibility at stake.

In 2010, a New York Times headline declared the BP oil spill plume “is no more.”

The newspaper cited a paper published in Science, Chapela said, that declared  “a new microbe had appeared in the Gulf of Mexico, ate up all that oil, and just as miraculously disappeared.”

The paper was authored by a host of scientists from UC Berkeley.

Yet the newspaper didn’t note one critical fact: “Every single member of that team was compromised by deals with BP.”

A passionate stakeholder from Richmond

A Richmond environmentalist, Clark heads the West County Toxic Coalition, and he knows the university’s site very well from his service on the Community Advisory Group appointed by the California Department of Toxic Services to clean up chemical contamination at the university’s Richmond Field Station and adjoining Campus Bay property, part of which is included in the university’s plans.

Both sites were massively contaminated by a century of chemical manufacturing, which included blasting and percussion caps made from toxic mercury, pesticides, herbicides, and countless other chemicals, and even experiments with splitting uranium bars with electron beams.

Clark marched on picket lines at the site, walking with Gayle McLaughlin of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, who was elected mayor midway during the site cleanup campaign, and Jeff Ritterman, a heart surgeon and Physicians for Social Responsibility activist later elected to the city council, where he too endorsed to the project.

“The City of Richmond has put itself out onto a limb, knowing there were many questions that had not been answered at the time,” Clark said. “They looked at it as a cash cow to bring in revenue and jobs.”

After working for years for a cleanup at the site, “we’re still not sure what’s there. Are we going to bring in the lab to add more?”

At the minimum, he said, Richmond residents need answers. “We need full disclosure” of what’s being done at the lab, along with penalties when disclosure isn’t provided.

“We’re not going for the okey-doke this time. We need clear, definitive answers.”

And if Richmond wants more jobs, he said, the city must invest in solar asnd wins technology.”

Clark won perhaps the loudest applause of the night.

NEXT: Questions raised about workplace safety.

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