Researcher Defends His Work on Gill Tract, Says Use of Corn Unfairly Demonized

Protesters work the land at the Gill Tract. Click for audio slideshow (Matthew Williams/KQED)

Since Apr 22, dozens of activists have been “occupying the farm” in Albany — the “farm” being the Gill Tract, a five-acre parcel of land owned by UC Berkeley that it used for agricultural research.

Despite early negotiations, the group is currently in a standoff with the university, though the administration has slowly tightened the noose by cutting off water, blocking entrances and filing a lawsuit.

So…why did Occupy come to the farm in the first place? The group explains in the Why This Farm section on its web site:

We are reclaiming this land to grow healthy food to meet the needs of local communities. We envision a future of food sovereignty, in which our East Bay communities make use of available land – occupying it where necessary – for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs. This particular plot of land is very special:

  • These are the last acres of Class One soil left in the urbanized East Bay. Ninety percent of the original land has been paved over and developed, irreverisibly contaminating the land.
  • Students, professors, and community have fought for decades to save this amazing land from development and use it for sustainable agriculture.
  • UCB capital projects currently administors this land and has slated it for rezoning and redevelopment in 2013 (i.e. supermarkets, parking lots, and apartments).
  • The University uses the land to research corn genetics. This research can be conducted anywhere as opposed to this unique site.

“For us the single most important thing is the preservation of the farm for sustainable urban agriculture for the greater East Bay,” Occupy the Farm activist Gopal Dayaneni told KQED’s Mina Kim this week. “[It's important] that the kids who have been coming here every single day after school have access, that the families that have been coming here on the weekend will have access.”

UC Professor Miguel Altieri, whose research group uses Gill Tract to study sustainable agriculture, has been highly supportive of the group that has taken over the land. In an interview with Albany Patch, he said “I support this action as a private citizen” and said many of the Occupiers are his former students. In an op-ed in The Daily Cal, written with colleague Claudia Carr, he also defended the group’s goal of preventing further development of the land, which at one time was 104 acres and is now down to five.

[The group's] goal is to prevent development of this five-acre piece of land that represents one the few remaining agricultural spaces with the best (“class-one”) soil in the East Bay. This effort would allow the community to be engaged with the land, arguing that preserving it as a productive farm is consistent with public policy and the public interest. Such preservation would also honor the history of the Gill Tract, which has housed researchers who, since the 1940s, conducted research on biological pest control, protecting California agriculture from exotic pests without the use of chemical pesticides.

But there are three other researchers who utilize the Gill Tract, and they have spoken out against the occupation. In his interview with Albany Patch, Altieri seemed to brush off their concerns:

Altieri said [the other researchers] could always “go to Davis” to do their work. When told that the corn researchers said the commute to Davis for their five-month field season would be problematic—time-consuming, polluting and prohibitive to student assistants without cars—and that the move would come too late for this year, Altieri dismissed the concerns.

“They have big money,” he said. “Federal and corporate.”

Damon Lisch, who is affiliated with the university’s Department of Plant & Microbial Biology, is one of the researchers who is scheduled to set up on the Gill Tract in May. Lisch does genetic research on corn, studying pieces of DNA called transposons that can impact evolution and cause mutations. In an interview on Wednesday, he said “the basic research done on Gill Tract has been extraordinarily productive” in the last few years, “leading to important insights published in journals like Nature Genetics, Nature and Science.”

Lisch told me he, like the other Gill researchers, receives government funding but no corporate money. All of his funding, he says, “depends on results I get from my field work.”

Lisch said he did receive corporate funding when he came to the university, in a controversial and some would say notorious deal with the biotechnology company Novartis. From a 2004 article in the Sacramento Bee titled “Report: Five-year deal with Novartis hurt UC Berkeley“…

The contract, which expired in November, gave a select group of Berkeley biologists $25 million for research along with access to trade secrets, principally in genetics. In return, Novartis got first dibs on potentially lucrative discoveries.

The deal provoked vigorous and often angry debate on campus and inspired numerous articles in the popular press, including one in Atlantic Monthly magazine titled “The Kept University.”

In the end, the collaboration didn’t turn out as anyone expected. The company didn’t try to strong-arm the scientists to pursue only commercially valuable research, as some had predicted.

Lisch said there’s been an “infuriating misconception about that process,” and that the company “never said word one about what I was supposed to do….I discovered with their money that one of my transposons had actually moved from one species to another, which is the last thing you want to hear if you’re doing GMO (genetically modified organism) research. That’s what they got for their horrible, corrupting funding.”

Here’s an edited transcript of the rest of the interview, in which we discussed Occupy the Farm:

JON BROOKS: Would it be impossible for you to do your research with the protesters there?

UC RESEARCHER DAMON LISCH: There are a couple of issues. One is the protesters took a big amount of space. They didn’t ask us, and they planted a whole bunch of the field. We could probably work with that because there might be enough space for us, though it may not be the space we would have picked.

The other issue: this is our laboratory. If somebody said to you well you wouldn’t mind if I just be in your office and work on your computer sometimes and I can help you with that writing you do, you’d object to that, especially if you knew they didn’t like what you write very much.

I personally hand plant 3-4,000 seeds. They all have to be catalogued, they all have to be in order, they have to be numbered, and we have to collect samples from them, and once the plants are big enough, we have to cross them and make a note of what we cross to what. So you can imagine how one curious person running through pulling bags off or knocking down a few corn plants could cause a huge amount of trouble for us.

The other issue I really have is it’s very clear to me that many of the protesters are profoundly suspicious of corn, and it’s almost become a totemic kind of thing, where corn is bad, it makes us fat, it’s corporate. No matter what I say, many of them are convinced I’m funded by corporations to make bad corn. And we’ve had our corn chopped down in the past by activists. So I’m really not comfortable with a lot of activists sharing my field.

In the public’s mind, corn research is connected to GMO corn. And if you work on corn, it has to be corporate. But corn’s been a model organism for genetic analysis for 100 years, so that’s why we use it.

Right now the anti-GMO sentiment is so vociferous, if you work on corn you kind of have a target on your back.

JON BROOKS: What about criticism that the land is underused?

LISCH: Well if you go out to any farm in the winter, there’s not much growing there. So we often use most of that part of the field. It’s not under-utilized.

I think that the protesters have a vision of how this land should be used, having to do with sustainable agriculture. I would rather have it used for basic research. So we have just a fundamental disagreement. And I think the only difference is there’s this very moralistic tone that’s added to their preference.

JON BROOKS: How do you feel about your colleague, Miguel Altieri, so firmly supporting the protesters?

LISCH: I think he shares their vision so it’s an attractive idea to him that the land is used for the purpose they want. I’m disappointed, I wish he would have stuck up for us, but he can make his own decisions about what he thinks is important.

I would have been happy if we had some long-term arrangement, maybe with a fence, for both scientific research and professor Altieri’s work — and urban farming and perhaps space for farming education. And maybe they could look at our plants as well and we could tell them about our research.

So I have no problem in theory with any of that. But I do have an enormous problem with people unilaterally making decisions about what’s done right now with that space. I didn’t vote for them, and when they talk about speaking for the community, as far as I can tell that just means people who agree with them.

If you ask a lot of residents in Albany, they’ve been fighting about this for years, with city council meetings and back and forth and arguments, and that’s just been completely trumped. I object to that.

JON BROOKS: What do you think will happen?

LISCH: I think it’s likely the protesters will leave one way or another. I think it would be a terrible precedent if they were allowed to stay. Because it’s just profoundly anti-democratic. What if a right-wing group decided that the political department is doing bad things and they’ll occupy that? It’s a terrible way to go about things.

What I hope will happen is that it will be resolved peacefully and people who advocate for urban farming will be allowed a seat at the table and express their opinion and the university takes it seriously.

I’ve met a number of the protesters and they’re not bad people. I went down there, and they were all sitting in a circle, and I spoke up and told them what I told you. The first part of their message was, consistently, that you could go somewhere else. I tried to explain how impractical and difficult that was, but they were not rude or confrontational at all.

Today, UC Berkeley issued a statement giving Occupy the Farm a deadline of Saturday at 10:00am to dismantle their camp. If not, the university said, it will take “unilateral steps necessary to protect the academic freedom of our faculty to pursue their interests without interference.”

But the statement also offered the protesters a grudging compliment:

As much as we abhor the tactics embraced by the occupiers, we acknowledge that their actions helped to raise the public profile of urban agriculture and generate constructive conversation about its value. Our College of Natural Resources was, prior to the occupation, already in an advanced stage of planning for an expanded urban agriculture program and the discussion has sharpened the college’s focus on getting the program underway. So, we urge the occupiers to take ”yes” for an answer, leave our property, allow the research to commence and have a seat at the table. We are moving on and can only hope they will quickly decide to choose collaboration over confrontation.

Related

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Damon is right. There’s this bizarre demonization of corn, which is a great plant and has been crucial for the new world for quite a long time. Good thing the occupi didn’t stop the Native Americans’ work on corn. Or, well, maybe some of them did. There were some other issues with people just coming and taking land they thought they were entitled to…*cough*

    And the fixation with GMOs is so twisted. It is aiming at the wrong target–just like the wrong plot of land they have. I get that they hate industrial agriculture, but it neither requires GMOs or are they sufficient. There’s no GE modification of many major plants but they are still “big Ag” like wheat and rice. Vaporizing GMOs tomorrow would not have a shred of difference for the things they are grousing about.

  • Pattern Math

    lets take a vote.

    http://www.dailycal.org/2012/05/03/members-of-occupy-the-farm-to-meet-with-campus-representatives-thursday-night/

    At its last meeting of the semester Wednesday, the ASUC Senate
    unanimously voted for a bill to support the Occupy the Farm movement.
    The
    bill — written by Cooperative Movement Senator Elliot Goldstein — asked
    the senate to support the occupation’s goal of maintaining a
    productive, educational farm and urges the university to reopen the
    water supply to the Gill Tract. About five student representatives gave a
    presentation during the meeting that detailed the history of the land
    and the occupation.
    The representatives asked the senate to put
    pressure on campus administration to restore access to water that had
    previously been turned off.
    “This is the evolution of the Occupy
    movement,” said junior Devin Murphy, who added that historically the
    movement has not had clear demands. “Occupy the Farm is willing to
    negotiate with the university and UCPD.”

  • Dan Brekke

    Great post, Jon, and a really informative interview with Damon Lisch. 

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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