Category Archives: Posts from Jeff Conant

Crossing borders: California tries to cultivate green roots with Chiapas

Note: As the climate crisis deepens and communities step up to the task of adapting,  political solutions remain half-baked at best. In California, despite serious concerns from environmental justice groups, the nation’s only compliance  cap-and-trade market came into effect this year. Now, the state is poised to consider international forest offsets, or REDD credits, in its portfolio of loopholes for polluters. In a recent piece for Race, Poverty and the Environment, I looked at the reality gap between what community-based groups are doing and what California’s cap-and-trade market promises.

As the question of international offsets reaches its decision-point in California (with public comments due by April 30), the state media is beginning to cover it. After years of work on the ground in Chiapas, including a serious investigation there during my tenure with Global Justice Ecology Project, I am convinced that the California-Chiapas-Acre agreement will be a disaster for all parties – except  the corporate polluters and the carbon consultants who will come away declaring it a big “win-win”.  In the article below, the Sacramento Bee reached out to me for the critical perspective, and while my intervention was given pretty short-shrift, at least there’s acknowledgment that not all of us are on board …

-Jeff Conant for GJEP

By Pia Lopez, March 10, 2013. Source: The Sacramento Bee

Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, is a remote frontier, the gateway to Mayan ruins, chilly highland forests and steamy rain forestjungle.

Americans, however, might be acquainted with it more for the ubiquitous “Chia Pet” (remember the clay pots with chia seeds?) or for the anti-globalization Zapatista uprisings that began in 1994 than for the state’s rich biodiversity and cultural heritage.

You might not expect this to be a place that draws California lawmakers.

But indeed it does, as I learned recently from Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. Last November, after the election of the new Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, the California state Senate sent a delegation to Mexico City,and the Environmental Defense Fund invited de León to visit Chiapas.
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University of California joins Monsanto in fight against farmer

Note: The precedent set by this case could have profound implications for GE trees, should they escape onto private lands or public parks.

-The GJEP Team

By Jeff Conant, February 28, 2013.  Source: Synbiowatch

Last week, the Supreme Court heard testimonies in the Bowman vs. Monsanto case, wherein the agribusiness giant is fighting an appeal by farmer Vernon Bowman, who the company claims infringed its patent rights by replanting seeds he purchased beyond the bounds of the company’s licensing agreement. The farmer’s claim is that seeds are seeds, designed by nature to reproduce, and that therefore farmers have the right to plant them as they always have; the company’s claim is that its patent on a particular technology embedded in the seed extends to future generations of that seed’s stock.

As the NY Times reports, “The question in the case, Bowman v. Monsanto Company, No. 11-796, was whether patent rights to seeds and other things that can replicate themselves extend beyond the first generation. The justices appeared alert to the consequences of their eventual ruling not only for Monsanto’s very lucrative soybean patents but also for modern agriculture generally and for areas as varied as vaccines, cell lines and software.”

Back in 2007, a federal judge in Indiana ordered Mr. Bowman to pay Monsanto more than $84,000. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which specializes in patent cases, upheld that decision, saying that by planting the seeds Mr. Bowman had infringed Monsanto’s patents.

The rationale for infinite generational patent protection was given by Chief Justice Roberts in his opening question to Bowman’s lawyer: ”Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?”
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Filed under Commodification of Life, Commons, Corporate Globalization, Food Sovereignty, GE Trees, Genetic Engineering, Industrial agriculture, Posts from Jeff Conant, Synthetic Biology

Weird Science: The promise and peril of synthetic biology

Note: Jeff Conant is the former Communications Director for Global Justice Ecology Project

–The GJEP Team

By Jeff Conant, source: Earth Island Journal

In 1971, a microbiologist named Ananda Chakrabarty patented a bacteria genetically engineered to degrade and destroy crude oil. The next year scientists created the first synthesized gene, a bit of yeast RNA ushered into existence virtually from scratch. These discoveries, among others, raised the curtain on the science of biotechnology. Forty years later, in 2010, biologist Craig Venter, already known as a key figure behind the mapping of the human genome, announced his creation of a microbe that earned the name Synthia: “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent was a computer.” Between Chakrabarty’s oil-eating microbe and the birth of Venter’s Synthia, a wave of gene therapies, pharmaceuticals, genetically engineered crops, and manufactured biofuels have transformed science, medicine, industry, and quite possibly, global ecology.

artwork depicting molecules

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, genetically engineered crops account for 88 percent of the corn, 93 percent of the soy, and 94 percent of the cotton, grown in the US (by acreage). In 2011, the first commercial flight powered by algae took off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. During the recent United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil, Amyris Inc., one of the leading companies in the emergent field of synthetic biology, flew a sugarcane-powered airplane over Rio de Janeiro. The same company, with a healthy infusion of cash from the Gates Foundation, is on the verge of releasing a malaria drug that, the company says, will be cheaper and more effective than any on the market today. The drug mimics the action of artemisia, an ancient Chinese herb. But rather than being extracted from a plant, Amyris’ drug will be manufactured within the cellular membranes of a fully synthetic strain of yeast.

The eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “Our planet has always been in the Age of Bacteria.” But scientists’ rapidly accelerating ability to harness microbes and turn them into what the field of synthetic biology calls “platforms for industrial production” is entirely without precedent. We are witnessing a revolution in the biological sciences of a speed and scale that is dazzling to some, and more than a little frightening to others.

“If you want to change the world in some big way that’s where you should start – biological molecules,” Bill Gates toldWired magazine in 2010. The microchip revolution has transformed the globe, and men like Gates made a fortune in the process. Unlike microchips, however, microbes are alive, and the implications of tinkering with them are almost entirely unknown.

In April, the Obama administration published a report called the “National Bioeconomy Blueprint” to assess and promote “economic activity fueled by research and innovation in the biological sciences.” Annual revenues from the bioeconomy in 2010, the report announces, totaled $176 billion.

“The growth of today’s US bioeconomy,” the report says, “is due in large part to three foundational technologies: Genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, and automated high-throughput manipulations of biomolecules.” In a certain kind of translation, that means writing genetic code, printing it in vitro, and employing robotic assembly lines to insert it into living microbes. Translated further into simple English, it means inventing and breeding living things that have never before existed in nature.

To read the rest of the article, go to Earth Island Journal

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The dark side of the “green economy”

Note: Jeff traveled to Rio+20 as Global Justice Ecology Project’s Communications Director.

–The GJEP Team

By Jeff Conant, August 1, 2012. Source: Yes Magazine

BPsignsBIG.jpgPhoto: Ben Powless


Everywhere you look these days, things are turning green. In Chiapas, Mexico, indigenous farmers are being paid to protect the last vast stretch of rainforest in Mesoamerica. In the Brazilian Amazon, peasant families are given a monthly “green basket” of basic food staples to allow them to get by without cutting down trees. In Kenya, small farmers who plant climate-hardy trees and protect green zones are promised payment for their part in the fight to reduce global warming. In Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest nations, fully 19 percent of the country’s surface is leased to a British capital firm that pays families to reforest.
These are a few of the keystone projects that make up what is being called “the green economy”: an emerging approach that promises to protect ­planetary ecology while boosting the economy and fighting poverty.

On its face this may sound like a good thing. Yet, during the recently concluded United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil, tens of thousands of people attending a nearby People’s Summit condemned such approaches to environmental management. Indeed, if social movements gathered in Rio last month had one common platform, it was “No to the green economy.”
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Chevron sends a massive plume of oil into the California sky; says ‘sorry.’

By Jeff Conant, for Climate Connections

August 7, 2012. Richmond, CA – A series of explosions rocked the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA yesterday, sending a 1000-foot high plume of black smoke into the California sky, leading to ‘shelter-in-place’ orders, stoppage of public transportation, and a decades-old plume of anger among Richmond residents. Public health authorities reported over 900 respiratory-related emergency room visits in the majority African-American city.

Chevron held a community meeting the following evening at Richmond City Center, attended by hundreds of frightened and angry residents. The panel was made up mostly of city and county officials — all white — along with a single Chevron employee, Nigel Hearn, the General Manager of the refinery.
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GJEP shutting west coast office but continuing our commitment to our work

August 2, 2012

Below please find an important update from Global Justice Ecology Project’s Executive Director and Board Chair, and below that a message from our Communications Director, Jeff Conant, on his time with the organization.

Dear Friends, Supporters and Allies of Global Justice Ecology Project,

As you know, Global Justice Ecology Project is a lean organization that has always achieved a lot with a little.

We are writing today to let you know that GJEP’s Board of Directors recently made the difficult decision to close our west coast office. While this change was necessitated by the same financial realities facing many non-profits, it is not an ending, it is an evolution.

We look forward to continuing our work with the allies and networks we have established on the west coast and in other regions.

In addition to this, earlier this summer, our main Vermont office moved to Buffalo, NY- a move that will benefit the organization’s goals and save us money as well. We will continue our Vermont presence, however, with representation in Burlington by our colleagues at Gears of Change.

As times change, so must we. And that change includes  re-orienting GJEP’s work to emphasize our strengths – specifically our effective campaign strategies, our activist research and analysis, and our support for grassroots efforts in the US – in conjunction with and in parallel to our ongoing work as part of a global network of activists.

GJEP’s evolution comes at a time when the issue of genetically engineered (GE) trees is reaching a crescendo, and as you know, GJEP was one of the first groups to make the clarion call on GE trees. We are now strategically focusing our organizational energies to advance our work to permanently stop the large-scale commercial development of GE tree plantations.

We are taking on some of the largest timber corporations on the planet, but we have a vast national and international network behind us, including hundreds of groups who signed our call for a global ban on GE trees.

We assure you that Global Justice Ecology Project, while changing and evolving, will continue to do what we do best: exposing the intertwined root causes of social injustice, ecological destruction and economic domination, while building bridges between social, environmental and ecological justice groups to strengthen our collective efforts to achieve systemic change.

Thank you for supporting Global Justice Ecology Project as we continue our evolution.

In solidarity,

Anne Petermann                                    Orin Langelle

Executive Director                                                   Board Chair

———————————————————————-

From (former) GJEP Communications Director Jeff Conant:

Hello GJEP supporters, allies, and friends,

Given the changes afoot in GJEP – the closing of the West Coast office and the end of my formal association with the organization – I want to share a few words.

My relatively brief tenure with GJEP spanned the period between the Cochabamba Peoples Summit of April 2010 and the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of June 2012. During this time, I had the great thrill of working at the heart of the climate justice movement.

By providing analysis, communications strategy, and media support at international events such as the UN Climate COPs, and by doing so from deep in the trenches of grassroots mobilization, we sent a clear and consistent message that those who determine climate policy should be those who bear the brunt of both climate chaos and the policies it engenders.

Many of our friends have told us – and it seems clear to me – that if the GJEP team had not been at these forums, this message would not gotten out as clearly, as strongly, or as effectively.

Working in the climate justice field during my two years with GJEP, we bridged issues, networks, and movements: drawing the links between forest-carbon offset policies and food sovereignty; between Indigenous Peoples Rights and urban struggles for environmental justice; between genetically engineered trees and synthetic biology; between the false solutions promoted under the rubric of a ‘green economy’ and the corporate concentration of wealth and power that is the primary root cause of the ecological crisis we are facing.

During this period, one of many phases in the evolution of this small but effective organization, GJEP’s work was to make the connections between the broad range of radical movements that essentially define the field of climate justice – without which, I believe, the field would be less articulate, less focused, and less effective.

Much of this work was behind-the-scenes, to facilitate the voices of our partners and allies, bring disparate issues together to help build a movement: and always in the mix – whether in the composition of the press conferences we organized, in the wording of the press releases we put out, or in the editorial vision guiding the Climate Connections blog – was GJEP’s sharp radical critique.

That vision will continue, and will continue to inform both my own work moving forward, and GJEP’s. While leaving the organization is a sad transition, I believe the work will continue as it must. I expect to continue working with Climate Connections, and supporting the organization through my own future initiatives.

In that same spirit, I humbly ask that those of you who have supported GJEP’s work will continue to do so through this transition. 

In the words of the eminent radical photojournalist Orin Langelle: Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

- Jeff Conant, Oakland California, August 1, 2012

P.S. Please note GJEP’s new contact information in Buffalo, NY:

Global Justice Ecology Project
266 Elmwood Avenue, Suite 307
Buffalo, NY 14222   USA
+1.716.931.5833
contact@globaljusticeecology.org
http://globaljusticeecology.org

GJEP Board of Directors:

Soren Ambrose, International Policy Manager, ActionAid International

Hallie Boas, Media and Climate Justice Activist

Dr. Aziz Choudry,Professor, McGill University, GATT Watchdog, Asia-Pacific Research Network

Hiroshi Kanno, Water Privatization Activist, Concerned Citizens of Newport

Orin Langelle, Board Chair

Ann Lipsitt, Reading Specialist, Disability Rights Advocate

Dr. Will Miller (in memoriam)

Clayton Thomas-Muller, Mathais Colomb Cree Nation, Tarsands Campaign Organizer, Indigenous Environmental Network

Anne Petermann, Executive Director, STOP GE Trees Campaign Coordinator

Karen Pickett, Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, Alliance for Sustainable Jobs & the Environment

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Filed under BREAKING NEWS, Climate Change, Climate Justice, Cochabamba, Commodification of Life, Durban/COP-17, False Solutions to Climate Change, GE Trees, Green Economy, Indigenous Peoples, Media, New Voices in the News, Posts from Jeff Conant

Occupy the Farm Goes to Court

By Jeff Conant, for Climate Connections

Alameda County, CA, June 1, 2012 – Yesterday began what will likely be years of legal proceedings between the Regents of the University of California and the Gill Tract Farmers Collective – the band of radical commoners who entered, occupied, and farmed the UC-owned Gill Tract, the last five acres of high quality arable soil in California’s East Bay, at the border of the cities of Berkeley and Albany.

Yesterday’s hearing, which took place at the Alameda County Courthouse, marked the UC’s initial effort to seek a legal injunction to prevent the Gill Tract Farmers Collective – several of whom face both civil and criminal charges – from re-entering the five acre plot of land where they established a community farm this spring.

The occupation, which began during an Earth Day parade on April 22, came to a close on May 14 when 100 riot police from eight UC campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department descended on the land, evicted and arrested the occupiers, and destroyed much of the planting that had been done during the three week civil disobedience.

Every seat in the courthouse was filled, many by farm supporters wearing torn jeans and carrying signs that said, “We dig the farm.”

Speaking for the plaintiff, UC Attorney Kay Martin opened the proceedings, saying, “The injunction we’ve sought is narrowly tailored – the named parties would be prohibited from ‘entering, occupying, residing on or cultivating’ the property.” The past trespass, and any future trespass, the plaintiff’s counsel argued, “stands a high likelihood of disturbing the experiments that are occurring on this land.”

The plaintiff’s case for the injunction also orders that anyone who ‘aids and abets’ the named parties must stay away from the Gill Tract.

Citing the initial cutting of the lock, holes cut in the fence, climbing over the fence, building steps to get over the fence, and other means of entering the property, the plaintiff argued that the occupiers have shown no evidence that they intend to stay away from the land, and that injunctive relief is therefore necessary.

“The very name of their website, ‘Take Back the Gill Tract’, indicates their intention to return to the land,” Martin told the judge.

When defense lawyer Dan Siegel spoke, he made no argument as to whether or not the Farmers had or had not entered the land in question, though he did note that there was no evidence that several of the named parties had been on the land. Rather, his argument rested on the contours of the land itself, whether or not the land is ‘private’ or ‘public,’ and the charge that the UC has the means to remedy the problem without seeking injunctive relief from the Court.

“I am amused by the characterization of the property as private property,” Siegel said.  “Unless something remarkable has happened in the last 48 hours, the Gill Tract is no more private property than this courthouse is. The Regents are stewards of public property, they do not own the property,” Siegel said.

The Regents’ characterization of the land was “incredibly misleading,” Siegel said. “The Gill Tract is 100 acres that were deeded to the UC as agricultural land. We need to be precise about the contours of the land which the defendants are prohibited from visiting.”

Siegel also argued the case on the grounds of freedom of speech under the First Amendment. “They are wrong on the facts, but they are also wrong on the law,” he said of the plaintiffs. “I would not argue that criminal trespass is permissible under the law, but the question here is, what is protected activity and what is not protected activity under First Amendment Rights.”

Siegel’s career tussling with the University of California over land rights and free speech goes back to the Peoples Park uprisings in Berkeley in the nineteen-sixties, where he played a key role, first as an organizer and later as a lawyer. More recently, he has demonstrated allegiance to the ideals of the Occupy movement. Siegel served as Legal Adviser to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan until November 2011, but resigned in protest after Oakland police violently dismantled the encampment at newly renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, and went after protesters with excessive force. His resignation was announced via Twitter: “No longer Mayor Quan’s legal advisor. Resigned at 2 am. Support Occupy Oakland, not the 1% and its government facilitators.”

“The main argument is this, your honor,” Siegel told the judge at yesterday’s hearing. “The law in the State of California holds that, before a trespass is brought before a criminal court, it must be shown that the harm was irreparable. What was the irremediable harm in this case? Felonious farming? Willful watering? Maybe even malicious mulching?”

After a burst of laughter from the packed courtroom, Siegel concluded his initial argument with a barbed comment addressing the UC’s handling of the case. “I know that the Regents expect that they can enter any court in the state of California and get the results that they want,” he said, “But I would argue that this demonstrates disrespect for the due process of law.”

Attorney Kay Martin, speaking for the plaintiffs, responded by arguing, “Regardless of whether the property in question is public, the regents are responsible for much property that the public does not have the right to go on.”

Since May 14, when the Gill Tract Farmers Collective was evicted from the land, Martin said, the UC has installed eight light towers, posted 20 No Trespassing signs, hired eight private security guards, and stationed between two and 25 police officers at the site at any given time.

Siegel seized on this point and countered, “The University says it has spent a lot of resources to secure the property against what I call ‘felonious farming.’ That expenditure does not change the fact that this injunction is for the misdemeanor of trespassing. The Regents have all the reasonable remedy they need – I mean, they have their own police department. What more do they need?”

At the time of this writing, the Court is still deliberating and no decision has been handed down.

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How Occupy the Farm Gave a Breath of Fresh Air to the Occupy Movement and Asserted its Right to Reclaim the Commons

A Climate Connections Exclusive, by Jeff Conant

Girl with Scarecrow and Wipala. Photo: Conant

 Note: this is an update of an article first written for Climate Connections on May 8. When the original was published, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective was actively engaging local community members in reclaiming the last and best piece of arable farmland in the urban Bay Area. Today, a week later, the land is sealed off, and the core members of that collective have been arrested,  cited and released from jail, and are awaiting trial. An alternate version of this updated article has been published on On The Commons. – Jeff Conant for Climate Connections

May 14, 2012When hundreds of people took up the banner of “Occupy the Farm” on April 22nd and laid claim to a patch of urban farmland owned by UC Berkeley, it was not the first time this 5-acre parcel had become the flashpoint of a struggle between the University and local communities. But it was the first time anyone had done something as brash as simply taking the land without asking.

Three weeks later, on May 14, a force of 100 police from at least 8 UC campus police forces converged on the site, blocked traffic, carted off nine of the organizers, and barricaded the 5-acre farm plot, as well as the perimeter of the 14 acre parcel of which it forms a part. Dozens of supporters arrived to watch the 7 a.m. action and to express outrage at the police. Of course, the police, in their riot shields and armed with teargas and pepper spray, are merely doing the job they were asked to do by the Chancellor of University of California – to uphold the rule of law.

In the scant three weeks that Occupy the Farm persisted as a physical occupation, it expanded the tactics, objectives, and vision of the Occupy Movement; it restored the frontlines of a local struggle to get the University of California to respond to community needs rather than corporate interests; it took an issue that is generally only spoken of in the so-called ‘Third World’ – that of food sovereignty and territorial rights – and dropped it into the heart of the urban San Francisco Bay Area; and, it asserted, in the flesh, a demand that many progressives have spoken of in recent years, but few have had sufficient vision, understanding, or bravery to manifest: Occupy the Farm was, and is, a bold, largely unprecedented act of reclaiming the Commons in the most immediate sense – taking land out of private speculation and putting it into community use.

Farmland is for farming. Photo: Conant

Occupy the Farm Takes the Land

On that sunny Sunday two weeks ago, an ad-hoc band of UC alumni, urban farming proponents, families, and veteran Occupy activists ended an Earth Day parade by arriving at the site, cutting the lock and pitching in to till and plant 3/4 of an acre of guerilla farm. On that first day and the days that followed, the action worked fantastically well. Fears of a police raid the first night went unfulfilled. Rather than sending its well-appointed riot squads to dismantle the trespass, the UC took the tack of firing up its public relations machine (and cutting off water to the site). Media, from Alternet to ABC to Forbes, picked up the story. Occupiers took the high road by engaging in direct dialogue with faculty, students, and administrators. For three weeks, the land continued to be occupied, and, more importantly, farmed.

But with the UC unwilling to accede to the terms of the sudden occupation or its community supporters, confrontation was always imminent. Soon after the land was taken, focus turned to the several UC research teams that needed to get their crops in the ground by mid-May. The occupiers made every attempt to negotiate with the researchers, but ultimately the university, and several of the researchers, were unwilling to meet the demands of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective. At the same time, having failed to meet community needs for decades, the University was witheringly unable to maintain even a slight scractch of moral high ground. It was clear from the first that the authorities did not have public opinion on their side, and would need to resort to the use of force to take the plot back.

Even the mainstream media was sympathetic to the cause. On May 10, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “They are, like all the Occupy groups, protesting the growing corporatization of American life and the steadily increasing wealth gap between the very rich and everybody else. UC Berkeley – which, for all the good it does, is nevertheless definitely on the side of the 1 percent, which is the location of the butter on this particular piece of bread – is moving carefully, but it ain’t listening.”

The ‘particular piece of bread’ in question is the bit of land called the Gill tract, and it is significant not only because it is the last and best agricultural land in the East Bay, but because the struggle over this land is tied to the struggle to keep the public university serving the public interest. Over the last decade, through investments by NovartisBP and other corporations, the University of California has become increasingly captured by private interests, which have come to control its research agenda and its land use policy. As one faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, “The UC doesn’t serve corporate interests; the UC is corporate interests.”

In the university’s first published response to the Occupiers, on April 27, Vice-Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer wrote, “We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights. By their logic they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it.”

Blunt as the Vice-Chancellor’s thrust was, he hit on a key point: the occupiers do believe they have a better idea of how to use the land than the UC. And, once concerns about power, money, private property, and other systemic irritations are set aside, their case is perfectly rational. In a revolutionary sense, that is.

Without doubt there are very real issues to wrestle with about what the land is currently used for, whose interests are served by it, whose interests should be served by it, and how such decisions are best arbited. In the best democratic spirit, the bold action of the Occupiers forced these questions to the foreground. In a system dominated by private property, where possession is nine-tenths of the law, these decisions are usually made simple, by Money and Power. But imagine a system where we relax the hold that the Rule of Law has over public property, we unclench the Invisible Hand of the Market that governs private property, and we revive a third option – one with a long and largely invisible tradition: the Collective Stewardship of the Commons.

Farmland is for Farming

The principle motto taken up by the Gill Tract Farmers Collective is “Farmland is for farming.” The slogan echoes the visionary cry for agrarian reform that kicked off the Mexican Revolution – the first agrarian revolution of the Twentieth Century – when Emiliano Zapata set forth the basic Commons principle, “La tierra para quien la trabaja” – the land is for the people who work it.

Indeed, it is this spirit that brought the Gill Tract Occupation support from international peasant farmer movements La Via Campesina and the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil. The act reflects what Ricado Jacobs, a South African member of La Via Campesina, told me during the UN Climate Conference in Durban last December: for farmers, food sovereignty depends on land sovereignty – and that means, taking land out of speculation, and putting it into production. Jacobs calls it “redistributive justice.”

“It’s not just about agrarian reform, or about taking land, but about transforming the whole food system,” Jacobs said at the time. “Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don’t take land?”

The first day of the occupation, the MST saw such importance in the Gill Tract occupation – an extremely rare occurrence in the US – that they sent a statement of support, in which they say “your land occupation is not an isolated act, but one of dozens of land occupations that are currently occurring across Brazil and the world, challenging the dominance of agribusiness in the countryside and asserting the right for peasants to own and work the land.”

Of course, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective is not made up of peasants. Anya Kamenskaya, one of the Farm’s spokespeople, says, “Obviously on a socio-economic scale our struggles are different than those of peasant farmers. But everyone in the world shares the problem of food access, because corporations control so much of global food production.”

Historically, this piece of land – not so much a farm as an open-air research lab – has been subject to much tussle between corporate-focused research and community-focused farming. As the Occupation has dug in, it has unearthed a long-term split between these divergent tendencies – a split that plays out in the current work going on there.

One set of researchers works with Professor Miguel Altieri, the man who coined the term “agro-ecology,” and whose program is aimed at encouraging “more ecological, biodiverse, sustainable, and socially just forms of agriculture.” Altieri works directly with peasant farmer movements in the global South, and, in keeping with the spirit of his work, has been vocally supportive of the Occupation of the land, while maintaining the position that research must continue there as well.

When the Gill Tract Farmers Collective offered to work with the researchers, to maintain their position but also support the academic work that needed to go ahead, Altieri engaged.

“I have no conflict with these people,” Altieri told Dean J. Keith Gilles of the UC’s College of Natural Resources. “I don’t see any reason why research on the land and the occupiers can’t coexist.”

Altieri’s plan was to work together with the occupiers and other community members, if they wanted to join him. “After all, extension is part of our job,” Altieri said. “We’re supposed to work with the community.”

But when Altieri showed up at the tract to plant on May 9, a dozen police officers had blocked the gates, and prevented him from entering the land. When Altieri was barred from entering the site, he appealed to the occupiers inside the fence: he described how to plant dry-farmed tomatoes – the subject of his research – and gave them several dozen plants, which they planted under the scrutiny of the UC police force.

Altieri was visibly frustrated at the UC’s handling of the situation. “It could be a coincidence, but I believe the raid was timed to prevent me from planting my tomatoes,” the professor said.

“The thing about dry farmed tomatoes is, they’re adaptive,” Altieri told me. “They don’t need any tilling, and they don’t need any water. I think this drove the college crazy.”

Altieri’s position that his research can be carried out not only in the presence of the occupiers, but with their assistance, flew in the face of the UC’s stated position. A letter signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer argued that the occupation of the land was incompatible with the research being carried out at the tract.

“By the middle of May, college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research,” the letter states, quoting CNR Dean J. Keith Gilles. “This requires that full control of the property revert to the university. These complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment.”

Another group of researchers is involved in what they call “basic genetic isolation research concerning how all plants develop and how they regulate their genes.” Despite the Gill Tract Collective’s attempts to negotiate with them, and to offer them the space to continue their work, this group of researchers has demanded that the Occupiers clear off the land. As some of the land’s ‘legitimate’ occupants, they have acted to give credence to the university’s position.

Corporate Science

The split in attitudes of the two research groups to some extent reflects larger attitudes towards property, both intellectual and material, and has led the occupiers to ask the question, if farmland is for farming, what constitutes farming, and what doesn’t? Certainly, we need basic research, and in a world facing massive species die-offs, exponential population growth, and the uncalculated effects of Global Warming, the more knowledge we have of our crops, the better. But, in an economic climate dominated by private interests – at a University whose research priorities are determined largely by who pays, whether it is the Federal government or private corporations – who is to say what research may or may not advance corporate control of food systems, to the detriment of the global Commons?

While they have repeatedly denied that GMOs are grown on the Gill Tract itself, two of the researchers who have been most vocally opposed to the Farm occupation are deeply involved in GMO research. One of the genetics researchers on the land, Damon Lisch, is the inventor of a US Patent with the typically abstruse title: “Genetic functions required for gene silencing in maize.” The text of the patent states that “The availability of genetic stocks that prevent the establishment or maintenance of transgene silencing would be extremely useful for engineering and breeding new corn lines.”

In other words, Lisch’s work helps solve problems blocking the further genetic engineering of corn. Put in more ideological terms, his work plays a role in furthering the corporate control of seeds.

An article from 2004 that reviewed Novartis’ role at UC Berkeley traces Lisch’s job at the university – and ultimately his research on the Gill Tract – to the $25 million grant the company gave to the UC in 1997. Lisch received $950,000 over five years under the agreement.

“It changed my life,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 2004. But he insists that the money did nothing to compromise academic freedom. “It was very hard for me to rationalize not accepting the money when there were so few strings,” Lisch said. “They never told us what to do.”

But conflicts of interests in science do not occur only by way of researchers being directly “told what to do”. They occur by way of the financial incentives and professional opportunities that come when certain research pathways are chosen, and others not. The University is actively marketing Lisch’s research to biotechnology companies through the UCOP technology transfer office; his research is cited in numerous patents related to transgenic plants being marketed by the University of California to firms including Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto. It is hard to believe that such an outcome does not compromise, or even guide, the basic research.

Lisch has refused to negotiate with the occupiers, and his wife has been present at the Gill Tract daily, meditating for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But for those who own the patents on seed and soil, in this case as in so many others, a peaceful resolution means giving in to Power with a capital P to maintain private control over Common resources – whether these resources are specific plots of land such as the Gill Tract, or whole lines of seed.

Another researcher on the plot, Sarah Hake, works with the USDA on precursors to biofuels. Her research helped to demonstrate that introducing a maize gene into switchgrass, one of the favored feedstocks for advanced biofuels, more than doubles the amount of starch in the plant’s cell walls, making it much easier to extract polysaccharides and convert them into fermentable sugars. In other words, her work on transferring genes from corn to switchgrass – a form of genetic modification – improves the switchgrass for more efficient biofuel production.

Hake, too, has said she would prefer not to have the occupation end in violence – and her preferred path toward nonviolence has been to side with university. Hake owns Gospel Flat Farms in Bolinas, CA, and is locally known less as a plant geneticist than as an organic farmer. In maintaining this apparently contradictory position, Hake may be among those who side with US Secretary of Agriculture and the biotech industry in arguing that genetically engineered crops and organics can coexist.

But can they? Can a Commons ethic co-exist with a predatory capitalist ethos determined to bulldoze the common good for the private profit?

These researchers may or may not be undertaking these processes on this particular plot of land; despite where their economic interests lie, they are perfectly friendly and approachable people, undeserving of the demonization that anti-corporate activists best reserve for the sociopathic tendencies of corporations themselves; and whether one sees their work as favorable or not depends on one’s position on biofuels, GMO’s, and intellectual property rights. But if a Commons argument is to be made for the use of the land, as it is by the Gill Tract Farmers’ Collective, such research, which serves the private interest of the biotech industry rather than the greater good of the neighboring community, fails to measure up to the “Farmland is for Farming” principle.

“If It’s the Right Thing to Do, We Have the Right to Do It”

The second part of the Farmland is for Farming principle is articulated by one of the Farm organizers, Gopal Dayaneni, of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project: “If the right thing to do with farmland is farming, then we have the right to do it.”

As I write, a few hours after the police raid, Dayaneni is in jail along with eight other organizers. He and the other organizers are also facing a civil suit. If you fall on the UC’s side of the law, they are being tried for criminal trespass. If you fall on the Commons side, their crime is exercising their rights.

While the point has not been made visible in the press, after spending time with the occupiers, one thing becomes clear: The Gill Tract Farmers’ Collective’s ultimate goal was – and still is – to divest the University of the land in question. For most of us, with our minds thoroughly embedded in what Provost Breslauer calls “property rights,” such a notion is literally unthinkable. But, from a Commons perspective, it becomes quite reasonable.

Again, the history of the land is key: this is the last and best arable soil in the urban East Bay, and is the last farmable 14 acres of a 104 acre land grant given to the UC in 1928. All but 14 of the original acres have been developed into urban landscape. A few years ago, the university transferred the land from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, its commercial arm that specializes in “development projects.” One of the key points brought to light by Occupy the Farm is that much of the property in question is slated for sale and development as soon as next year. In the Zapatista-inflected words of one organizer, “this is the Ya Basta! to the UC’s selling off this land.”

There have been many prior attempts by community members to work with UC faculty and administration to make good use of the land, with vocal support coming from the likes of Alice Waters, Food First, and the Black Panthers. In 2000, under the name Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), several professors, students, community members, and nonprofit organizations proposed turning the plot into the world’s first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems. The proposal was ignored by the university.

In 2005 a group called “Urban Roots” advanced a proposal to create Village Creek Farm and Gardens, “a farm that would provide Bay Area students from preschool to community college and university with an educational resource par excellence.” Urban Roots argued at the time that the Center for Urban Agriculture at the Gill Tract offered UC Berkeley the opportunity to join other organizations and community members in teaching students and future urban dwellers these skills and the benefits of locally produced food. This proposal, too, was rejected.

As Professor Altieri wrote in an Op-ed in the Daily Cal, “From these facts, it can be concluded that until now, the university has shown little to no interest in requests for community involvement and benefit from the exceptionally high-quality lands at the Gill Tract.” Michael Beer, a former Albany schoolteacher and one of the forces behind the Urban Roots initiative put it more bluntly: “Our problem was we tried to talk to the university. These people just came in and took the land, and now the university has to deal with them.” Professor Altieri adds that, “To many people, the actions taken by the farm advocates are consistent with the university’s education and public mission as a land grant institution with a Cooperative Extension function (the latter established in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914) to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture.  Their actions are also consistent with California public policy, as set forth in Section 815 of the Civil Code, to preserve and protect open space, particularly agricultural land that has historical significance — such as the Gill Tract.”

Professor Altieri cites the historical mission of the land grant university to preserve agricultural land, and it is important to cite such legal precedent. (An important recent report from Food & Water Watch has much to say on the topic.) But, with the Commons framework in mind, it’s worth considering that it’s one thing to pressure the University to develop an urban farming program with a component that engages and educates local communities, as the institution’s mandate suggests; it’s another entirely to judge the University incompetent to steward the land, to declare the property a conservation easement, to put it in a land trust, and to restore it the Commons. Ultimately, in conversations had on hay bales and under impromptu tarps fluttering in the Bay breeze, this is what the Gill Tract Farming Collective was – and is – proposing. And like so many others who have challenged the power of private property in the interests of the public good, this is why, today, they are sitting in jail.

To Plant, You Have to Supplant; To Reclaim the Commons, You Have to Break the Law

A week ago, the university administration expressed alarm at Occupy the Farm’s tactics — ignoring property rights and establishing an illegal encampment for starters — and charged that the young farmers were trying to bulldoze their demands through without consideration for other community interests, such as the ballfields, the Whole Foods and the Senior Home that are awaiting construction on the Gill Tract. The charges were made with an eye to discrediting the Occupiers, but that effort failed. Now, the university has acted the way any property-owner acts when its interests are threatened – by calling in the Law.

When the alarm went out that a raid was underway, Gopal Dayaneni, one of the spokespeople for the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, rolled out of bed and headed straight to the Farm. An hour later, along with eight others, he was being carted off to jail. As Dayaneni said multiple times in the days leading up the raid and the arrests, “Occupy the Farm is an act of ongoing civil disobedience, and the action is farming.”

The point being, in a system that has no ground rules for governing land within a Commons framework, the old rules need to be cast aside. Civil disobedience spelled the other way around is moral obedience – standing for a higher principle. Doing it is messy, especially with so many divergent interests at stake. It takes courage, it takes commitment – and, in many cases, it requires breaking the law.

The Occupy Movement writ large has not been shy about any of these questions – from Zucotti Park to Oscar Grant plaza, to public squares everywhere, the movement has pushed the boundaries of the law. In return, it has received grim treatment that bears frequent recall: Scott Olsen, the Iraq War veteran who received a traumatic head injury from an Oakland Police Department projectile; the pepper-spraying and beatings of students at UC campuses; police abuse in New York City, and countless arrests are testament to the lengths the authorities will go, daily, to protect and serve private property and big financial interests. From abolition to civil rights to the anti-war movements, we know this is how the state responds when the Commons are reclaimed, whether the Commons in question are political spaces or physical territory.

That said, until this morning, when the police arrived in their militarized gear, being on the Occupied Gill Tract felt nothing like breaking the law. The plot is a flat piece of green and tilled pasture edged by palm and Russian olive trees and surrounded by high chain link fence, bordered by major urban thoroughfares, a mile from the highway and in plain view of the Albany Police Department and several gas stations. As of a few days ago, a mixed and scrubby bunch of people – occupiers, UC faculty, permaculturists, neighbors, children – sat on straw bales or under tent canopies talking, or walked with jugs of water down the 40 or so rows of crops that were tilled and planted over the past two weeks. Drugs and alcohol were prohibited, and dogs had to be leashed – after all, farmland is for farming.

During the family farm days they’ve held for the three weekends of the Farm’s existence, children dug and planted, musicians took the stage to strum or simply stroll through the fallow stretches of the land, folks sat in circles learning about the joys of composting or the complexities of the global food system. The first Sunday after the land was taken, several of us held a welcome home ceremony for the descendents of seeds that had been moved off the tract twelve years ago – just after the Novartis deal went through, when the university first prioritized genetic research over agro-ecology. The seeds had been saved year after year at the Bay Area Seed Library down the road. In less than an hour, a dozen people planted a permaculture plot to continue growing the seedstock that had been in diaspora for over a decade. My four-year old daughter helped out, and on many occasions since, she has asked to go back.

Despite the growing attention given to food, farming, and open land in the urban East Bay, there is no place I know that feels like this. Now, at least for the moment, that feeling – and that place – is gone.

When I drive by later, my daughter will be surprised to see that the land is barricaded and guarded by police in riot gear. If I have the parental guts, I may use the occasion as her first teachable moment to discuss private property and the Commons. It certainly is a poignant one.

There is no doubt that the joy of being on this little parcel of farmland during its three-week run was first and foremost that of getting a breath of fresh air in an urban environment. But could it be that part of the pleasure of setting foot there was that it was against the law? That it was neither a public park nor a private farm, but a brief and utopian step outside of the rules that surround and enclose us everywhere we go? That we were not supposed to be there?

Despite the enclosure of the land, the struggle of Occupy the Farm continues. In fact, it has only just begun. Now, with the Farmers facing criminal and civil charges, and with the crops trampled, and with the UC calling the shots, the struggle will take shape as a battle for public sympathy. Certainly the genetics researchers and university administrators and the UC Police and a fair number of law-abiding neighbors will be glad to see the farm back in private hands. Sarah Hake, the researcher with the biofuel interests and the organic farm, may find herself in an uncomfortable position as she commutes from her private family farm in the country to her private research station in the city, guarded by police.

Damon Lisch, the researcher with intellectual property rights to the technique that allows corn to be more efficiently modified, and whose wife prayed for a peaceful resolution, said about the occupiers, “They’re not bad people – they’re just good people on my land.” His statement points to one of the underlying issues: where one’s sympathies lie is determined, in large part, by whether or not one believes in the Commons.

Lesley Haddock, one of the Farmers, wrote in the Daily Cal last week “If this farm stays, and if farms like this one continue to spring up in urban centers around the world, we won’t need to rely on the massive industrial structures that feed us genetically contaminated and nutrient-poor foods. We can create our own sustainable models and grow food the way we know it should be grown.” That’s a big “if.” And it’s one that for now, looks extremely tenuous. But it’s the if that holds open the door onto the Commons.

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Breaking News: UC Police Descend on Gill Tract Farm Collective, Evict Farmers

May 14, 2012 – This morning beginning at 6:00 a.m. 100 police from at least 8 different University of California campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department blocked access to the Gill Tract, the UC-owned property that has been occupied, and farmed, for the past three weeks, by community activists.

Ashoka Finley of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, on the morning’s events:

For three weeks, the Gill Tract Farming Collective and its supporters have used ongoing civil disobedience to demand that public land be made accesible to the public. The University of California regents have not respected past community demands to give the public access to the land, so the occupiers have raised the stakes by remaining persistent in their presence on the Gill Tract. They have been consistently peaceful and non-confrontational.

This mornings raid has resulted in the arrests of at least nine people. UC Police have been filmed inside the tract trampling the crops planted by the Occupiers.

UC Police standing guard:

The UC has filed a civil suit against fourteen of the organizers — several of whom now also face criminal charges following their arrest. For its part, the UC has not yet indicated how it hopes to resolve the dispute over the land itself, beyond posting police at the Gates to prevent access.

When asked what happens next, Ashoka Finley, one of the movement’s spokespeople, said, “The squash we planted need fertilizer. We’re hoping to get back in to take care of the plants, if there are any left after this.”

Police and sunflower. Photo: Conant

Occupy the Farm Eviction: End Violence. Photo: Conant

Farmland is for farming. Photo: Conant

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Gill Tract Raid Results in Standoff, Enclosure…and Dry-Farmed Tomatoes

NOTE: Yesterday, we posted this lengthy look at Occupy the Farm in light of the Commons. Less than twelve hours after posting that piece, UC Police raided the Gill Tract. As this breaking news report reveals, the Farm continues — but for how long is anybody’s guess. – Jeff Conant, for GJEP

By Jeff Conant

May 9, 2012, Albany CA – When University of California Police arrived at the Occupied Gill Tract this morning at 6 a.m. and began barricading the gates, with some two dozen members of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective inside, word spread quickly that Occupy the Farm was being raided.

How did the Farmers react?

By planting tomatoes.

According to reports, after the police sealed off several escape routes from the five-acre plot of land that has been occupied, and farmed, since April 22, they announced over a bullhorn that any interference with their activities would result in the use of chemical dispersants.

On the west side of the field, parents walking their kids to Ocean View Elementary School became concerned about the police action. After one parent called the City Council, a city council member showed up and urged the police to stand down.

Ulan McKnight, an Albany parent, member of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, and co-founder of the Albany Farm Alliance, which supports the occupation, said, “We are absolutely appalled that the UC decided to ratchet up the conflict by threatening to use chemical weapons. Everything we’ve done has been peaceful and non-confrontational. Everything we’ve said we’d do, we’ve done. We’ve taken every opportunity for dialogue. Yet they want to make this into a police action. There’s no need for that. We’re farmers, and we’re here to plant.”

And plant they did.

Professor Miguel Altieri, faculty at the College of Natural Resources which managed the site before it was transferred to the University’s Capital Projects Development arm, showed up at the site at 6:45, accompanied by several students and armed with several flats of tomatoes. At a public forum the night before, Altieri, who teaches agro-ecology and has been conducting research on the Gill Tract for many years, announced that he would go ahead and begin his research with dry-farmed tomatoes the next day. He also let the Dean of the College, J. Keith Gilles, know of his intentions to carry on his research,

“I have no conflict with these people,” Altieri told the Dean earlier in the week. “I don’t see any reason why research on the land and the occupiers can’t coexist.”

When I caught up with Professor Altieri shortly after the police raid, he said his plan had been to come to the tract with his students, and work together with the community members if they wanted to join. “After all, extension is part of our job,” Altieri said. “We’re supposed to work with the community.”

But when Altieri showed up at the tract this morning, a dozen police officers had blocked the gates, and prevented him from entering the land.

When Altieri was barred from entering the site, he appealed to the occupiers inside the fence: he described how to plant the dry-farmed tomato crop, and gave them several dozen plants, which they planted right away, under the scrutiny of the UC police force.

Altieri expects to return to monitor the tomato crop throughout the season. But the events of the week have caused him to throw up his hands about undertaking his full research plan. The change of plans, he says, is not due to the occupation, but to the contrary – because of their likely expulsion.

“I’m not going to plant my research plot this year – I can’t plant beside their corn,” he said, referring to experimental corn plots being planted by USDA-funded researchers also associated with the UC’s College of Natural Resources.

Altieri was visibly frustrated at the UC’s handling of the situation. “It could be a coincidence, but I believe the raid was timed to prevent me from planting my tomatoes,” the professor said.

“The thing about dry farmed tomatoes is, they’re adaptive,” Altieri told me. “They don’t need any tilling, and they don’t need any water. I think this drove the college crazy.”

Altieri’s position that his research can be carried out not only in the presence of the occupiers, but with their assistance, flies in the face of the UC’s stated position. A letter signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer argued that the occupation of the land is incompatible with the research being carried out at the tract.

“By the middle of May, college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research,” the letter states, quoting CNR Dean J. Keith Gilles. “This requires that full control of the property revert to the university. These complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment.”

The letter, which was issued Tuesday night, also cites Professor Bob Jacobson, chair of the Academic Senate, who said “faculty research had been ‘usurped’ by the protesters’ unilateral actions,” and was in violation of academic freedom. Provost Breslauer closes the letter by saying the university has every intention to make sure research goes unimpeded, and the rule of law is maintained.

This morning’s actions show that the university means business.

Accompanying Professor Altieri at the Gill Tract was Claudia Carr, Associate Professor of International Agricultural Development in the Environmental Science, Policy and Management program within the College of Natural Resources. Like Altieri, Carr supports the Gill Tract Farmers Collective.

“I think the bottom line here is that what these people have accomplished, with precious urban land, is to raise the question of development: what type of development, toward what, and for whom? That’s what they intended to do and that’s what they’ve done. This will have a lasting influence on the community,” she said. “This will not be forgotten.”

Professor Carr’s internationally-focused work examines how development projects led by the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions often lead to displacement, environmental disruption, and human rights abuse.

I asked Altieri what he thinks the university will do with the land if it manages to dislodge the occupation.

“They’ll take it over and do what they want,” he said.

Carr agrees: “The university’s line about managing this as a multi-stakeholder site is disingenuous,” the professor said. “Once they transferred the land to Capital Projects, there’s no getting it back.”

Carr pointed out that the same thing happened several years ago with a nearby site called the Richmond Field Station. That site is the planned location of the second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Anya Kamenskaya, one of the spokespeople for the Farmers, underlined Carr’s points. “They wouldn’t even be talking about urban agriculture if we hadn’t come here and done this,” she said.

“Now they’re playing it up as if they’re great stewards of ‘metropolitan agriculture’. They’re not. Unless there is student pressure and community pressure, they don’t do anything like this. Now they’re making this a contentious battle between researchers and occupiers – that’s not what this is about. This is about preventing this land from being sold off and developed into a high-priced national supermarket chain.”

Pointing to the plots of fava beans and the newly planted tomatoes, Kamenskaya said, “We should remember that Miguel Altieri is the only actual UC faculty working here. The others are USDA adjunct faculty.”

As I left the sight, four police officers stood by the gate watching a crew of Farmers pulling a trailer loaded with water jugs toward their field of vegetable seedling beginning to curl up in the mid-morning sun. Water at the site has been turned off for two weeks.

Before leaving, I stopped to speak with Ulan McKnight of the Albany Farm Alliance. I asked McKnight what the best possible outcome would be:

“The best result would be a sustainable farm in Albany. We want a permanent easement. If the UC can show they have the trust of the public, then they can manage it. But so far, they have failed to show that,” he said.

McKnight cited the fact that “part of the $25 million investment bought Novartis two seats on the board of the CNR research committee. (For more on that deal, see here, here, and here.) So what do they do? They vote to put genetic research on the land. In 1998 they kicked off the local organic pest management project, and decided they would do gene research. What was here before directly benefitted the people of California; now what they do here directly benefits biotechnology companies. Instead of doing things that can help people, they are doing things that benefit the one percent.”

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