Author Archives: Jeff Conant

About Jeff Conant

writer, editor, activist ... focusing on the intersection of communications, development, justice, and ecology ... i've published articles and essays variously in independent media and several books ... work with social and ecological justice networks and organizations to message, strategize, build, proliferate, transform ...

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, DOE, and UC Berkeley’s New Bay Area Bio-Lab is Creeping into the News: But What’s the Untold Story?

by Jeff Conant, Global Justice Ecology Project

January 19, 2012 – Last September, Climate Connections ran a letter of concern from the Council for Responsible Genetics and the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology about a massive new research facility being planned for the San Francisco Bay Area, as a second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL). The announcement of the lab site was expected by late last year, but has been postponed until early 2012.

Meanwhile, concerns continue to run high among those who are aware of the lab’s implications; a few weeks into 2012, we are beginning to see word about the lab in the local news. Most reports reliably mention Lawrence Berkeley’s having spawned 13 Nobel Laureates, and being former home to Steven Chu, Obama’s Energy Secretary. Reports also commonly give an uncritical nod to LBNL’s role as a pioneer in private-sector funding for University research, and note, without much particular interest, that such funding has launched a generation of scientist-impresarios on incredibly lucrative business careers.

What isn’t mentioned so clearly, or is left out altogether (as in this article from the East Bay Express) is that the new lab will focus on synthetic biology – a new, high-powered field of research that combines the tools of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science, and nanotechnology, with the corporate entrepreneurial spirit of big pharma and a sort of hypermodern replay of the old advertising adage, “better living through chemistry”.

Nicknamed “Extreme Genetic engineering” or “Biohacking,” synthetic biology, (or syn-bio) goes Genetic Engineering one better: rather than moving individual genes from one species to another, syn-bio engineers entirely new genetic sequences and constructs novel microbes programmed to behave as industrial machines that can, for example, eat biomass (plants) and excrete anything from pharmaceuticals to vanilla extract to rubber to jetfuel.

Synthetic DNA is used to fabricate biological building blocks – often called “BioBricks” – capable of being combined in many different ways. “Parts” are assembled into “circuits” which are inserted into a “chassis” to create designer microbial factories that can be “booted up” to manufacture proteins or detect molecules that nature herself may never have dreamed up.

KQED’s recent report Six Bay Area Cities Play the Waiting Game describes the cities’ anxious vying for the new lab, which comes with such difficult-to-consider factors as the need for two new freeway entrances, two new BART stations, and concern over the rising waters of San Francisco Bay. A prior KQED report from December 2011, Biofuels Face a Reality Check, addressed the problems in scaling up biofuel/agrofuel production, as they play out through two of the key Bay Area labs.

The technical problems of biofuels, KQED reports, are being worked out by scientist-impresario Jay Keasling, the founding director of the Bay Area-based Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI), and by Chris Somerville, Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI). JBEI was founded 5 years ago with a $125 million grant from the Department of Energy, with the mission of creating cellulosic biofuels; EBI, also run by UC Berkeley, LBNL, and the Department of Energy, was started with a $500 million grant from British Petroeleum.

What we don’t learn from these two news reports, is the link between the Biofuels issue and the soon-to-be-announced new campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Indeed, almost nowhere in the news do we learn the proposed purpose of the lab. Even the project developers, it seems, are hesitant to make known the actual purpose of the lab, though clever neighborhood residents like Zelda Bronstein are wise to their PR plans as revealed through the developer’s polling tactics.

Synthetic biology is pitched as “cool science” – an enthralling world of lucrative, cutting edge research spearheaded by outsized young vanguardists sporting an aura of entrepreneurial genius, an element of mad scientist, and a dash of rock star.

But, while there are a handful of very compelling star scientists at work in synthetic biology, the image of a hip, personality-driven industry provides a convenient smokescreen for some of industry’s most recognizable brand-names. Just as the British Empire’s scientific expeditions were underwritten by the Crown under the auspices of the British Royal Society, this new avenue of research – which has its own aspect of imperial pursuit, in the need for feedstocks of sugarcane and tree cellulose – is largely underwritten by the fossil fuel industry, big pharma, and the chemical complex.

Jay Keasling’s flagship company, Amyris, funded by Total, Mercedes-Benz, Bunge and the Department of Defense, is but one example; another Bay Area firm, Solazyme, works with Chevron and the US Navy; while Synthetic Genomics, also in the Bay Area, partners closely with ExxonMobil. Indeed, the entire project of synthetic biology, while often portrayed in the science press as the project of a few charismatic front-runners, is financed by the deep pockets of the world’s largest, and most destructive, industries.

As a new and largely unregulated lab science, synthetic biology also comes with a host of health and safety concerns for lab workers and local communities. As labor advocate Steve Zeltzer asked in a recent broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA radio, Is Our Health And Safety Under Threat from A Synthetic Biotech Laboratory In The East Bay?

Journalist Richard Brenneman is also following the issue, having uncovered a recent Wikileak concerning Amyris, an agrofuel firm spawned at UC Berkeley, run by Jay Keasling, and perpetuated with a hefty cash infusion from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (as well as the aforementioned fossil fuel giants and the US Government). Brenneman also covers the problems facing Barack Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, who, as Director of the Lawrence Berkeley labs, played a key role in landing UC Berkeley the $500 million BP agrofuel program.

Over on the east coast, an applied sciences and engineering campus in New York City promises “$6 billion in economic activity,” “More than $1 billion in private capital investment on the site,” “Nearly 8,000 construction jobs,” “Thousands of well-paying permanent jobs in diverse fields,” and an “Estimated 400 new companies.” But these grand pronouncements are nowhere accompanied by a transparent discussion of the nature of the research and its implications.

In late March of this year, the San Francisco Bay Area will host a critical dialogue about synthetic biology and the new lab. In the meantime, let’s hope that the word spreads beyond the blogosphere, and that the press begins to ask the right questions – like, what is synthetic biology, and how wise is it to build a synthetic bio lab on an earthquake fault in a major metropolitan area?

It’s good that the media is beginning to dole out news on the proposed new lab; but unless we dig beneath the cool surface of this experimental science funded by the old guard of the fossil fuel, big pharma, food and finance industries, we’re likely to get lulled into a quick complacency about this new, heartily green-washed industry that is neither safe, nor sound.


Filed under Bioenergy / Agrofuels, Climate Change, False Solutions to Climate Change, Genetic Engineering, Green Economy, Greenwashing, Posts from Jeff Conant, Synthetic Biology

Reminder: Urgent Support Needed to Bring Medical Supplies to Amador Hernández, Chiapas

Note: Since we first sent out this appeal last week, we have raised $525 toward our goal of $750.  Please help us raise the last $225 to reach the goal needed to send these medical supplies to the remote Indigenous village of Amador Hernandez in Chiapas, Mexico.

Thanks so much for your solidarity.

–The GJEP Team

(Español debajo)

A man in Amador Hernåndez transporting vaccines by horseback. Photo: Orin Langelle/GJEP

Since this past March, GJEP has been working with the community of Amador Hernandez in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico to document government efforts to evict them from their land under the pretense of climate mitigation. Part of this effort has been the government’s withdrawal of medical services from the community. Now, the villagers have been offered a large shipment of medical supplies, and have asked for our support to pay for transporting this material to the village by light plane.

We need to raise $750 US dollars by November 23 in order to make this happen. Every penny donated will go straight to the community to bring them this shipment of medical supplies. To learn more, read the message from Amador Hernandez, below. To donate click here and, in the window marked “Designation”, write Medical Supplies for Chiapas to ensure that every penny goes to the community.

“The struggle and the stance of the region of Amador Hernández in defense of land, territory, culture, and natural resources has generated forms of repression and coercion that are well-masked to try to dissuade even those whose commitment to our cause is clear. The region’s defense of the jungle by way of rejecting the brecha lacandona and the REDD+ project, brought, first, the total withdrawal of medical services; after sending an action alert in April, we saw a partial return of medical services. But this situation has since changed to become, once again, a complete absence of medical attention for our people.

Our indigenous peoples possess a profound culture of resistance, and full knowledge of how to walk with dignity in honor of the memory of our peoples; this commitment brings with it suffering, and sacrifice, as well as a high level of organization; it is for this reason that today our communities, and in particular Amador Hernández, are working hard to strengthen not only their struggle, but also the health of their people by building their own medical system, with the will and the effort of their community base, and accompanied in solidarity by organizations, groups and individuals who recognize health services as a form of love and compassion for those who suffer, and not as a form of social control and repression of the poorest and most vulnerable.

There is much to do; but some groups have responded already to our need for support, and have donated supplies that are essential to give proper medical attention in Amador Hernández. At this moment, we need to raise 7500 pesos (about $750 US Dollars) to transport the supplies that have arrived to date.

To help bring medical supplies to Amador Hernandez, please click here and, in the window marked “Designation”, write Medical Supplies for Chiapas to ensure that every penny goes to the community.


La lucha y el pronunciamiento de la región Amador Hernández en defensa de la tierra, el territorio, la cultura y los recursos naturales, ha generado sin duda modos de represión y coherción enmascaradas para tratar de doblegar las voluntades de quienes caminan con congruencia. Su definición en defensa de la Selva a través del rechazo de la brecha lacandona y el proyecto REDD plus, en un primer momento represento el retiro total de los servicios de salud y en otro segundo momento después de la alerta de acción un pequeño retorno que poco a poco se convierte nuevamente en ausencia total.

Siendo nuestros pueblos indígenas poseedores de una profunda cultura de resistencia, saben que caminar con dignidad para honrar la memoria histórica de sus pueblos, es un compromiso que implica sufrimiento, sacrificio y un alto nivel de organización; es por eso, que hoy en día estas comunidades y en particula Amador Hernández están tratando de fortalecer no solamente su lucha sino la salud de su gente a través de la construcción de sus propios modos, con la voluntad y el esfuerzo de su base comunitaria y en compañia de la solidaridad de personas, grupos y organizaciones que conciben la atención a la salud como una forma de servicio, amor y compasión por quienes sufren  y no como un medio de control social y represión en detrimento de los más pobres.

Todavía hay mucho camino que recorrer, pero hay algunos grupos que han respondido a la necesidad de las comunidades y han donado diferentes materiales y equipos que son muy importantes para la atención de salud en Amador Hernández y es necesario en este momento recaudar 7500 pesos para poder transportar la ayuda que ha ido llegando.

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Filed under Actions / Protest, Chiapas, Climate Change, Climate Justice, Indigenous Peoples, Land Grabs, Latin America-Caribbean

Bolivian president Evo Morales suspends Amazon road project

Cross-posted from the
Referendum promised on £211m Isiboro national park highway after violent clashes between police and protesters

 Tuesday 27 September 2011 15.56 BST – Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, has suspended the construction of a controversial Amazon highway a day after violent clashes between police and protesters.

On Sunday, police used teargas and batons to disperse an estimated 1,000 protesters who were marching to the capital, La Paz, to oppose the construction of a 185-mile (300km) road through Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Tipnis).

The march, which began on 15 August, was to highlight the social and environmental costs of the road, which campaigners say would wreak havoc on the wildlife-rich park and its indigenous populations.

The police response triggered widespread criticism, even from within Morales’s government. The defence minister, Cecilia Chacon, quit in protest. “This is not the way. We agreed to do things differently,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

On Monday night Morales finally gave into pressure and promised a referendum on the road’s construction.

“While [we conduct] a national and regional debate, construction of the Tipnis road is suspended,” he said, according to Bolivia’s La Razón newspaper.

The suspension, which many believe will prove only a temporary reprieve, was nevertheless a U-turn for Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, who has repeatedly vowed to push ahead with the project. “Whether they like it or not, we will build that road,” he said in June.

Anti-road protests have highlighted tensions between his desire to improve infrastructure and boost investment and his image as a champion of indigenous rights and the environment.

“Our Mother Nature feeds us, gives us drinks and we respect her, we value her, we have to look after her,” the country’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, said earlier this year. “Development – the one implemented by western societies – has generated considerable imbalances between people and regions. It has created a million problems.”

The road has also underlined resentment over Brazil’s increasing role in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, where it is financing and executing major and sometimes controversial infrastructure projects, including hydroelectric dams and roads in countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay.

In June, Peru’s government cancelled a concession for a Brazilian company to build the controversial Inambari dam in the Peruvian section of the Amazon.

The Bolivian road was being funded with a $332m (£211m) loan from Brazil’s development bank, the BNDES, and built by OAS, one of several Brazilian construction firms that operates across Latin America.

Critics complain that Brazil will be the true beneficiary of the road by allowing it to export products from Pacific ports in Chile and Peru. Bolivia, meanwhile, would be lumbered with debt and forced to deal with the resulting environmental destruction.

“The highway is being built for Brazil so that it can export its products to Bolivia,” Ernesto Sanchez, one of the protest leaders told the Guardian. “Here we’d only be left with debts because all the benefits go to Brazil.”

Brazilian authorities dismiss such criticism and argue that its growing presence in poorer neighbouring countries is part of mutually beneficial “south-south” co-operation.

On Monday, Brazil’s foreign ministry released a statement defending its role in the road’s construction. The ministry described the road as a “project of great importance for Bolivia’s national integration and one which meets the social and environmental standards outlined in Bolivian legislation”.

Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, a thinktank, said Brazil was slowly replacing the role traditionally played in Bolivia by the US. “Brazil is rapidly replacing US influence and economic might, but in its own unique, Latin American way,” she said. Ledebur said there were positive aspects to Brazil’s growing role in Bolivia, pointing to increased co-operation in anti-drug trafficking efforts.

“Unlike the contentious history of impositions and the conditioning relationship with the United States, there is a greater degree of trust and collaboration [between Brazil and Bolivia],” she said.

Bolivia’s former president Carlos Mesa painted a different picture.

“Bolivia sees Brazil as an expansionist and imperialist country,” he said, according to Brazil’s Valor Economico newspaper. “This is in the subconscious of Bolivians.”

• © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

See video from Telesur here.

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Filed under Climate Justice, Forests and Climate Change, Indigenous Peoples, Latin America-Caribbean

Brutal Repression of Indigenous Marchers in Bolivia

 Over the past several days, a peaceful march protesting a proposed highway through indigenous and protected territory in Bolivia has met with repression from government forces, culminating with attacks on the marchers’ camp last night, which have resulted in several deaths and many disappeared.
While the administration of President Evo Morales has taken strongly progressive positions in international climate negotiations, these positions have been increasingly contradicted by the administration’s domestic actions.
Regardless of the Morales government’s broader positions and policy statements, government repression is never justified.   — the GJEP team

Turning Point for Morales:  Bolivian Police Repress and Detain Indigenous Marchers

cross-posted from ANDEAN INFORMATION NETWORK –September 26, 2011

On September 25 at 5 pm, approximately 500 Bolivian police officers tear-gassed and used excessive force against camping indigenous protestors outside of Yucumo, in Beni Department.   At least one child is reported dead and multiple wounded,[i] although the Morales administration denies these reports.   The violent police action presents the most dramatic example yet in a series of incidents that have acutely eroded Morales’s credibility as a representative of indigenous and environmental rights.  These growing contradictions, and the administration’s apparent inability to change course has put into question the long-term viability of this government.

Indigenous demonstrators began marching from Trinidad, Beni in mid-August to reach the capital La Paz, in protest of proposed highway construction through their indigenous and protected territory, Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure (TIPNIS), without prior consultation as stipulated by the Bolivian constitution.[ii]   Colonists, indigenous migrants from other regions sustained blockades to impede the march’s progress, in support of the TIPNIS highway for over a week.  The day before, marchers forced Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who had been by Morales as part of a negotiation team, to march with them to pass through part of colonizers’ blockade.

Police Tear Gas Marchers’ Camp

However, as protestors camped on the road about 5 km outside of Yucumo, 500 police officers swarmed the campsite.  After firing tear gas, police rounded up and detained approximately 700 protestors, who they put into buses and trucks to transport to San Borja, a larger town with an airport.  However, residents resisted police by blocking the road and would not allow the buses and trucks to enter the city.  Police changed route and took protestors to Rurrenabanque, which also has an airport. This morning, Rurrenabanque residents also blocked their airport and prevented police from taking prisoners away by plane, allowing approximately 300 of the detained marchers to be released from the buses.[iii]  The destination of the scheduled flight remains unclear.

Widespread Condemnation of Police Action

The police action provoked widespread rejection from human rights monitors, the press and the general population.  The Morales administration’s initial reaction left much to be desired. After spending the day in TIPNIS in an attempt to drum up support for their initiative and proposing a referendum in the two affected departments, Morales officials denied that the police intervention had beenviolent, and argued that it was merely an effort to impede confrontations between marchers and colonizers.  As testimonies, footage and photographers circulated, it became clear that, in the best-case scenario, government officials are badly out of touch.

Police Action Provokes Internal Divisions and Resignations

In La Paz, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón resigned her post, stating in a letter to President Morales, “I made this decision because I do not agree with the intervention ordered by the government and I cannot defend or justify it.”[iv] CIDOB, an umbrella indigenous organizations involved in the march and others claim four to seven people died from tear gas inhalation; the most significant count being five children, one baby, and an elderly person.[v]  Journalists, many who had their cameras confiscated and are being kept at bay by police, report at least one death, a baby, and 37 people unaccounted for after escaping police intervention.[vi]  Government officials denied that there were any casualties.

In a press conference, Minister of Government, Sacha Llorenti claimed that police were sent it to prevent conformation between colonizers and indigenous marchers.  Furthermore, he claimed the marchers carried bows and arrows, which they used to attack police officers.  He also denied that anyone had died or gone missing. He further affirmed that he maintained Morales’ support and would not resign.[vii]   Press Minister Ivan Canelas later announced a complete investigation of the incident.

Morales’ Silence Deepens Crisis of Credibility

Protests rejecting the administration’s actions are spreading across the country and a nationwide strike is set for Wednesday. Today, Morales and his cabinet meet in private.  In spite of demands for Llorenti’s firing and rumors Foreign Minister Choquehuanca’s potential resignation in protest, the prolonged silence exacerbated the crisis.  At this time it appears that the next twenty-fours hours could define the future of the Morales government. Without decisive action to provide guarantees for marchers’ safety acceptance of their demands, legal consequences for the officials ordering and carrying out the violent intervention, the administration may not be able to overcome this scandal. At any rate, Morales reputation as an indigenous crusader for environmental protection has been irreparably damaged.

[ii] Bolivian Political Constitution of the State, Feb 2009.

DERECHOS DE LAS NACIONES Y PUEBLOS INDÍGENA ORIGINARIO CAMPESINOS. ARTICULO30.-I. Es nación y pueblo indígena originario campesino toda la colectividad humana que comparta identidad cultural, idioma, tradición histórica, instituciones, territorialidad y cosmovisión, cuya existencia es anterior a la invasión colonial española.II. En el marco de la unidad del Estado y de acuerdo con esta Constitución las naciones y pueblos indígena originario campesinosgozan de los siguientes derechos:
A existir libremente……4. A la libre determinación y territorialidad….6. A la titulación colectiva de tierras y territorios….7. A la protección de sus lugares sagrados…..10. A vivir en un medio ambiente sano, con manejo y aprovechamiento adecuado de los ecosistemas…. A ser consultados mediante procedimientos apropiados, y en particular a través de sus instituciones, cada vez que se prevean medidas legislativas o administrativas susceptibles de afectarles. En este marco, se respetará y garantizará el derecho a la consulta previa obligatoria, realizada por el Estado, de buena fe y concertada, respecto a la explotación de los recursosnaturales no renovables en el territorio que habitan..16. A la participación en los beneficios de la explotación de los recursos naturales en sus territorios.  17. A la gestión territorial indígena autónoma, y al uso y aprovechamiento exclusivo de los recursos naturales renovables existentes en su territorio sin perjuicio de los derechos legítimamente adquiridos por terceros…III. El Estado garantiza, respeta y protege los derechos de las naciones y pueblos indígena originario campesinos consagrados en esta Constitución y la ley.

[iii] TIPNIS Resiste, “Liberación de 300 marchistas en Rurrenabaque,” 26 September 2011.

[iv]Los Tiempos, “La ministra de Defensa renuncia por la represión de marcha indígena,” 26 Sept. 2011, Chacón: “Asumo esta decisión porque no comparto la medida de intervención de la marcha que ha asumido el Gobierno y no puedo defender o justificar la misma.”

[vi] [vi] There have been no further reports on there whereabouts, but they should not be counted as “disappeared” in a traditional human rights sense, and many could reappear after communication lines between marchers are reestablished.

[vii] Los Tiempos, “Ministro de gobierno: “Propósito de intervención era evitar enfrentamientos entre pobladores de Yucumo y marchistas” 26 Sept. 2011.

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Filed under Forests and Climate Change, Indigenous Peoples, Latin America-Caribbean

Biohazard Alert: New BioLabs to be Announced Soon in San Francisco Bay Area

One of GJEP’s areas of focus, increasingly, is the emerging biomass economy. Our allies at ETC Group last year published a groundbreaking report on the topic, and we conducted and published this interview with ETC Group’s Jim Thomas to give wider air to the tremendously forward-thinking views revealed there.

The global home to the bioeconomy, and to the science of Synthetic Biology, is the San Francisco Bay Area, where UC Berkeley partners with Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and the Department of Energy to run bioenergy research, and to spin off new biotech firms. In the coming months, the location of a new biolab will be announced, to significantly expand the research and development capacity in this area. In what amounts to a tremendous spin effort, this lab — and synthetic bio in general — can be expected to be framed as offering ‘green jobs’ and “climate solutions.”

The truth, however, is quite different. Below, we share an article from the Berkeley Daily Planet, that we see as the beginning of a wave of concern about synthetic biology, locally and globally.

– the GJEP team

Is Public Health and Safety Being Considered in the Construction of LBNL’s New Biolab in Berkeley? (News Analysis)

By Jeremy Gruber, Tina Stevens and Becky McClain
Monday August 08, 2011

In April of this year, U.C. Berkeley researchers announced the creation of the U. C. Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI), which will ramp up efforts to “engineer” cells and biological systems.1 Part of its research will include experiments that insert manufactured stretches of DNA into existing organisms to create new, self-replicating artificial life forms—experiments that pose implications for worker safety, public health and environmental safety. A collaboration of university and industry, the SBI enterprise is designed to catapult basic research into profit making applications. From a press release, “SBI will be an important link in a constellation of research centers focused on synthetic biology at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), both of which have made the field a research priority. SBI is unique in its planned collaborations with leading companies, designed to translate leading research on biological systems and organisms efficiently into processes, products, and technologies.”2

Where this extensive new research will take place is a matter of some speculation. LBNL, managed by U.C. Berkeley but funded by the Department of Energy, is seeking to open a second campus somewhere in the East Bay, across from San Francisco. The new facility hopes to combine three existing facilities presently scattered throughout the cities of Berkeley and nearby Emeryville: the Joint BioEnergy Institute, the Life Sciences Division, and the Joint Genome Institute. Potential sites for a new campus include a number of locations in the City of Berkeley itself.3

What do residents make of this idea? Lawsuits have stymied LBNL’s effort to expand into the region’s Strawberry Canyon watershed, described by activists as “a rich repository of wildlife.”4 Now concern over second campus proposals, which include targeted locations along the west Berkeley shoreline, has centered on issues of job creation, tax revenues, zoning, and predictions of rising sea levels. It remains to be seen whether health and safety issues uniquely associated with this research also will be raised. Do adequate safety protections exist? Or are entirely new safety assessment and reporting methodologies for this research required in order to safeguard worker, public and environmental wellbeing?

Biosafety level (BL) containment labs are ranked from 1-4 according to the risk of harm they pose, with increasing levels indicating increasing danger. Typically, BL1 labs perform research on non-human infectious agents; BL2 labs use biological agents that could infect humans but are assumed to cause only “moderate harm”; BL3 labs experiment with biological agents capable of killing humans but for which there are known antidotes (like anthrax); and BL4 labs conduct research using agents that could kill humans and for which there is no known antidote.

Which safety lab levels will the new campus house? What constitutes “moderate harm?” Will the citizenry of this densely populated urban area know what pathogens are being used for research? Since academic and private interests operate under different safety, liability, and oversight restrictions, which research safety guidelines will apply? What remedies will apply in the event of lab worker injury, or environmental or public safety hazard? Will there be a public safety infrastructure facilitating transparency and accountability? Is the patchwork of voluntary regulatory guidelines from existing agencies adequate?

A brief review of just a few incidents of lab worker exposure to hazards suggests that even current biolab regulation and oversight is not adequate. These include Dr. Jeannette Adu-Bobie, who after visiting a New Zealand lab suffered a meningococcal infection from a laboratory strain causing loss of both legs and an arm; Ru-ching Hsia, a Department of Agriculture scientist who became infected by laboratory E.coli strain and lapsed into a coma for a month;, and University of Chicago scientist Malcolm Casadaban, who died after unknowingly being infected with a laboratory plague bacterium.5 One of this essay’s co-authors, molecular biologist Becky McClain, won a whistle-blower suit against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after reporting public health and safety concerns.6 She fell ill after an untrained lab worker used a human infectious genetically engineered virus, without suitable biocontainment, on McClain’s personal workspace. She began experiencing periodic paralysis and spinal pain, a result consistent with the DNA-coded effects that had been engineered within the pathogen. Recently, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a University of Illinois laboratory worker was infected by a genetically engineered cowpox laboratory virus, one with which she had never worked. CDC investigators not only found cowpox DNA in many areas around the lab, they also discovered that supposedly harmless stocks of viruses had been contaminated.7 Problematically, releases of laboratory bio agents are difficult to track since exposures often are not visible to a worker who succumbs to a mystery illness. Scientists can become ill from dangerous biological exposures without knowledge of having endured an exposure.

Public health also is a serious consideration. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed nearly 800 people in 2003. Lab versions of the SARS pathogen are known to have escaped BL 3 and BL 4 labs via infected lab workers.8 And a few years ago, at Berkeley itself, workers handled deadly Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (which spreads in the air) without containment when it was mislabeled as harmless.9 The U.S.’s 2001 anthrax scare10 and the unknown source of the virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain of E.coli that has recently infected thousands in Europe and, so far, killed 27 raise serious questions about the effectiveness of tracking, as well as accountability.11

There is no central authority that coordinates research and planning on synthetic biology. Even though synthetic biology poses serious risks, there are no specific standards for determining threat levels to humans, animals, plants, microorganisms or the environment. Experiments involving the synthesis of completely novel synthetic DNA sequences can make a harmless microbe into a new pathogen with dangerous and far reaching consequences. There are very real concerns that synthetic biology research could result in enhanced virulence, the ability to infect a wider range of organisms, and resistance to antimicrobials, antivirals, vaccines and other treatment or containment responses. As Jonathan Tucker and Raymond Zilinskas explain in “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology,” because synthetic microorganisms are self-replicating and capable of evolution, they could proliferate out of control and cause environmental damage and, if they escape from a research laboratory or containment facility, threaten public health. For this reason, they pose a unique risk unlike those associated with toxic chemicals or radioactive materials.12 Synthetic biology research also raises new issues regarding the degree to which laboratory workers are prepared to engage in such research. Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field, involving the activities of chemists, engineers, physicists, and computer scientists as well as biologists. Many practitioners in these fields have never had training, let alone professional experience, in biosafety.13

The most recent issue of GeneWatch featured Lynne Klotz’s report on Boston University’s feeble risk assessment efforts, undertaken to assure Boston citizens that its lab, which is likely to be conducting research on SARS and the deadly 1918 flu virus, is acceptably safe.14 The University and the NIH claimed that emergency simulations supported moving ahead with the desired research. The National Research Council did not agree, concluding that “the model did not appear to recognize biological complexities and reflect what is known about disease outbreaks and other biological parameters.”15 In other words, both Boston University and the NIH had conducted a risk analysis that ignored the most basic information actually needed to assess the lab’s risks. This cautionary tale should provoke additional public scrutiny of any new biolab facility. Berkeley’s City Council, as well as the governing entities of the other Bay Area cities who want the lab, may want to keep track of what unfolds in Boston—remembering that Boston, unlike the San Francisco Bay Area, is not even on a major earthquake fault line. Considering the current limitations of oversight and the problems of accountability of the various public and private partners involved in the project, it is less than clear what steps they are prepared to take in order to ensure the safety of any new facility engaged in synthetic biology research.

Boosters have heavily promoted the theoretical benefits of synthetic biology to the public and local officials. They need now to be much more forthcoming in detailing the very real dangers attendant to such research, including broadly publicizing comprehensive risk assessments. Potential neighbors, and others who stand to be impacted by any facility conducting synthetic biology research, deserve better from the University and its partners, and from government representatives charged with protecting public health and safety.

Jeremy Gruber is President of Council for Responsible Genetics. Tina Stevens and Becky McClain are board members of Alliance for Humane Biotechnology.16 This article originally appeared in GeneWatch, vol. 24 no. 3, June-July 2011

Endnotes1. “Lab, Campus Collaborate in Formation of Synthetic Biology Institute,” Today at Berkeley Lab, April 21, 2011. ; Synthetic Biology Institute, University of California, Berkeley.

2. “UC Berkeley Launches Synthetic Biology Institute to Advance Research in Biological Engineering,” Agilent Technologies, April 19, 2011.

3. “LBNL Announces Community Meetings on Second Campus at Berkeley Chamber Forum,” The Berkeley Daily Planet, June 8, 2011.

4. Save Strawberry Canyon

5. “A Higher Bar for Pathogens, But Adherence Is an Issue,” Andrew Pollock, NY Times, May 27, 2010.

6. “A Roach in the Kitchen: Interview with Becky McClain,” GeneWatch March/April 2010, vol 23, Issue 2,

7. “First U.S. Cowpox Infections: Acquired from Lab Contamination,” by Sarah Reardon, Science Insider February 17, 2011.

8. “SARS in the City,” by Lynn C. Klotz, GeneWatch April/May 2011.

9. “Texas A&M Bioweapons Accidents More the Norm than an Exception,” Sunshine Project July 2007. . (accessed 3rd of July 2011).

10. “Amerithrax or Anthrax Investigation” US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

11. “German E. coli death toll rises further,” CNN World June 9, 2011.

12 “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology,” Jonathan B. Tucker, Raymond A. Zilinskas, The New Atlantis, Spring 2006.

13 “Diffusion of Synthetic Biology: A Challenge to Biosafety,” by Marcus Schmidt Systems and Synthetic Biology Journal (June 2008).

14 “SARS in the City,” by Lynn C. Klotz, GeneWatch April/May 2011.

15 National Research Council (2007). Technical Input on the National Institutes of Health’s Draft Supplementary Risk Assessments and Site Suitability Analyses for the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, Boston University: A Letter Report, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.. (accessed 3 July 2011).

16. The authors acknowledge helpful comments from Stuart Newman.



Filed under Bioenergy / Agrofuels, Climate Change, Energy, False Solutions to Climate Change, Genetic Engineering, Green Economy, Posts from Jeff Conant, Synthetic Biology

Justice Begins with Seeds Conference, San Francisco, Sept. 16-17

GJEP will be joining the California Biosafety Alliance at their two-day conference, Justice Begins with Seeds, this Friday and Saturday in San Francisco.

Bringing together an inspiring array of speakers on GMO’s and agriculture, including Vandana Shiva, Ignacio Chapela, Andrew Kimbrell, Miguel Altieri, and our colleagues and allies from Food First, Pesticide Action Network, Sin Maiz No Hay Pais, and many other committed supporters of natural farming, the gathering will provide an important platform to reignite the struggle against the ongoing genetic modification of our food and food systems.

GJEP Communications Director Jeff Conant will be there to lead a discussion about how to understand and challenge dominant narratives about agriculture, climate, forestry, and technology.

For more information, click here, and to register, click here.

– the GJEP team


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Jeff Conant on KPFA’s Against the Grain Today

Following on the publicationof his article Do Trees Grow on Money in Earth Island Journal this month (with photos by Orin Langelle), GJEP Communications Director Jeff Conant was invited to appear on KPFA’s show Against the Grain today, to speak about REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Listen to the broadcast, here.

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Filed under Chiapas, False Solutions to Climate Change, Forests and Climate Change, Green Economy, Posts from Jeff Conant, REDD

SIGN ON LETTER to Support Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia Marching to Oppose Highway

While the Bolivian government has had a strong voice for the Rights of Mother Earth within international climate and water negotiations, the unfortunate reality on the ground in that country is more divisive. Among other large extractive and infrastructure projects planned under the administration of Evo Morales is the TIPNIS Road — a highway planned through vulnerable indigenous territories. A national protest is mounting right now, and your help is needed to support the marchers. Please read and sign on, below.

– the GJEP team

Friends and Colleagues,

Since August 15, over 1,500 indigenous peoples in Bolivia -including men, women and children- have been marching in defense of their lives and their indigenous territory. The Bolivian government is determined to build a highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) an indigenous territory without consulting local indigenous communities. Determined to defend their territory and stop the highway, indigenous peoples are marching to La Paz with the hopes of immediate dialogue with the government to find an alternative solution to the highway going through the TIPNIS.  For more background information see letters below, read article by Friends of Tipnis or go to CIDOB’s website for up daily updates.
As the march gets closer to La Paz, indigenous marches face threats and opposition. They have requested international support to keep their march and their demands alive. Please consider supporting the indigenous movement in Bolivia as they march for their rights and territory.  PLEASE SIGN ONTO AN ORGANIZATIONAL SIGN ON LETTER TODAY. It is below and attached in English and Spanish. Send your organizations name and primary contact to: as soon as possible, but no later than Friday, September 16. This letter will be promptly sent to President Evo Morales. 

Thank you for your solidarity!
For the TIPNIS and Indigenous Rights,
Leila Salazar-Lopez
Amazon Watch

Sign this petition and also the letter below:

Join “Tipnis en Resistencia” Facebook Group: 

Join “Defendamos el Tipnis – No a la Carretera Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos” Facebook Group: 

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Jeff Conant and Alegria de la Cruz on Radio Bilingue today at noon, PST

GJEP Communication Director Jeff Conant will be speaking on Radio Bilingüe today, 12:00 to 1:00 Pacific Coast time, along with Alegria de La Cruz, the legal Director for San Francisco’s Center on Race, Poverty and the Enviornment about California’s AB32 and the California-Chiapas agreement. The show will be in Spanish; details in Spanish below:


INTERCAMBIANDO CONTAMINACIÓN. California ha firmado un acuerdo con el estado de Chiapas, México, para comprar créditos por contaminación, a cambio de protección para la Selva Lacandona. Organizaciones comunitarias están preocupadas de que este acuerdo permitirá más contaminación en las comunidades de bajos recursos en California, al mismo tiempo que expulsa a más pueblos indígenas en Chiapas fuera de su tierra. Grupos de justicia ambiental han demandado a California en un intento por detener el “cap-and-trade”, un sistema incluido en la histórica ley para poner fin a la contaminación por gases de invernadero, que permite que las compañías continúen contaminando, siempre y cuando compren créditos de otras agencias que reducen la contaminación.

Invitados: Alegría de la Cruz, Directora jurídica, Centro de Raza, Pobreza, y el Medio Ambiente, San Francisco, CA,; Jeff Conant, Escritor y Director de comunicaciones, Global Justice Ecology Project, Oakland, CA,

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Filed under Carbon Trading, Chiapas, Climate Justice, False Solutions to Climate Change, Independent Media, Indigenous Peoples, Media, Posts from Jeff Conant, REDD

Kandi Mosset, of Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota, talks about fracking in Indian Country on 90.7, KPFK

This Thursday, August 11, Kandi Mosset, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota spoke on KPFK’s Sojourner Truth Hour about the unfolding tragedy of oil and gas fracking in North Dakota and across Indian Country. Listen to the archived show by clicking here and scrolling to minute 6:48.

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