Corporate Ties Could Hide GMO Risks (10/3/2007)

1.Commentary: Profits Before Education in UC-BP Partnership
2.Editorial: Corporate Ties Could Hide GMO Risks
1.Commentary: Profits Before Education in UC-BP Partnership
By Nathan Murthy
Berkeley Daily Planet, 9 March 2007

Let us first set aside the potential ad hominem attacks against BP Amoco PLC. So what if it is the corporation that pleaded with Washington and London to remove the democratically elected prime minister of Iran from office which resulted in a violent coup d'etat in 1953 because of concerns over control of Iran's oil resources? So what if it is the corporation that deliberately failed to adequately maintain its Alaskan pipeline so it could drive up the price of oil, and which, upon discovering the whistle blower, hired a CIA operative to break into the employee's office? So what if it is the corporation who, along with oil giants ExxonMobil and Shell, heavily influenced the new Iraq Oil and Gas Law which would give Big Oil a 75 percent concession to Iraq's oil resources in a so-called 'Production Sharing Agreement'? Yes, let us put BP's past (as well as its recent past) behind us and look towards the future of renewable energy so that, in the words of Berkeley National Laboratory's Steve Chu, we can 'help save the world.'

Before wholeheartedly embracing Chu's messianic vision, it would be wise of us to realize what industrial-scale biofuel and ethanol production would entail. Take a gander at a nation that has already shifted its gasoline consumption to a 40 percent reliance on ethanol - Brazil. Since 1973 the South American nation has intensively cultivated sugarcane for the production of ethanol, and since then Brazil has witnessed some dire results: massive deforestation, increased air and water pollution, and loss of life in some of the world's most biologically diverse regions. A preeminent Brazilian environmentalist, Fabio Feldman, adds: 'Some of the cane plantations are the size of European states... In order to harvest you must burn the plantations which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city.'

But those are Brazil's problems. What problems does the United States face? First, the United States has only 625,000 square miles of arable farmland. In order to fully supplant fossil fuels with biofuels at our current consumption levels, we would need 1.4 million square miles of land - land we do not have, and land that would be seized from developing countries. Second, we need to also consider that nearly all of the fertilizers and pesticides used in massive agricultural projects are oil-based products. Intensifying  agricultural projects using these products does not ameliorate our dependence on oil. And third, according to research done by UC Berkeley scientist Tad Patzek and Cornell University professor David Pimentel, ethanol production from corn and switchgrass would, respectively, require 29 and 45 percent more fossil fuel energy than produced. Biodiesel production from soybean would require 27 percent more.

However, Berkeley researchers and scientists are assuring us that such negative-return projects will not be the focus of the Energy Biosciences Institute. Instead, those working in the laboratories will study the use of cellulosic plants such as Miscanthus weed. Much of the research with such plants will necessitate the application of genetically modified organisms - a technological field which is in itself shrouded by controversy.

Finally, what can be said about the corporatization of our public university? The role of the university in the context of the global economic order coincides with the advent of the Cold War. The Eisenhower administration in the 1950s increased funding for 'educational' programs in the domain of the sciences and technology and installed additional programs so that it could cement the United States as a dominant power and remain competitive with the Soviet Union in both the global political and economic landscapes. At this juncture of human history we begin to see the role of the university as a key component of ensuring that U.S. students would be fully integrated with this hegemonic scheme. Part of that scheme includes the realization of US citizens as trained, well-disciplined adults who are eager to jump the corporate bandwagon.

The University of California has since then churned out such 'contributions' of 'societal good' as the atomic weapon and the 'Berkeley Mafia' who were essential in providing Indonesia's Suharto regime with the game plan for the New Order (It's quite ironic how the proposal equates the value of the EBI with the development of the atomic bomb). If the University and the State of California were truly committed to higher learning in the purest sense, why then has Governor Schwarzenegger planned to increase student undergraduate fees by 7 percent, graduate fees by 9 percent, and cut academic preparation by $33 million, all while pledging $40 million in California tax-payer dollars to the construction of the EBI? The trend is obvious: profit before education (unless the two coincide). With $500 million over the course of ten years, the University will double its corporate endowments and solidify a semi-unilateral dependency on a single corporate entity.

If students are at all concerned about the fate of public higher education for our generation and the generations to come, we must challenge proposals that threaten our access to education. We must engage colleagues and faculty who are concerned about this threat. And we must see behind the gossamer veil of the university which purports a progressive solution to energy usage.

Nathan Murthy is a UC Berkeley student.
2.Editorial: Corporate Ties Could Hide GMO Risks
By Becky O'Malley
Berkeley Daily Planet, 9 March 2007

Why shouldn't public universities welcome big grants from big corporations? After all, times are tough, and they need all the money they can get to keep tuition costs down, right? Well, maybe, but let's take a look at the real costs of inviting the fox to sleep over in the henhouse.

In California the state-supported University of California is granted a privileged independent position under the state constitution. This was originally intended to protect the academic freedom of faculty members, but it's been used as the excuse for other more dubious claims of sovereignty. UC's branches now answer only to themselves, and claim that they don't have to follow any local laws regarding, for example, zoning. That's why the University of California at Berkeley plans to build a couple of big new labs and a gymnasium right on the Hayward fault while thumbing its august nose at local attempts to raise safety questions regarding disaster evacuation and other details.

These days only about a third of UC funding, depending on how you count, comes from the state, so all the rest is raised from outside sources. That includes grants from governments and foundations, and also big contributions from those with financial interests in what the university is up to. Barclay Simpson, a big time manufacturer of construction widgets, has both been board chair of the school's art museum and is lending his name and presumably his bucks to the proposed gym. Elsewhere in this issue you can read about Richard Blum's revolving door relationship with UC as regent, contractor, spouse of senator, and donor.

But the new deal with British Petroleum (now cozily called just BP) puts all of that in the shade. Presumably Mr. Simpson may put in a good word from time to time on behalf of a favorite artist or athlete, but he surely has acquired no contractual right to control the organizations he supports with his dollars. The BP deal, like others similar which have attracted less publicity, will have all sorts of links in it which give the corporation control over things they should never be allowed to influence. The proposal which won the prize for UC included an offer to bend the university's public relations effort to tout the virtues of the products produced by the joint venture. Corporate scientists will be working cheek-by-jowl with academic researchers in Strawberry Canyon, creating an atmosphere not conducive to reporting any bad news about the results.

Many years ago, courtesy of the National Science Foundation, I had the privilege of participating in a seminar at Stanford sponsored by what was then called the program on Ethics and Values in Science and Technology (EVIST). It had two major goals. The first was stimulating 'research on ethical aspects of contemporary issues involving scientific and technological research and development and on social values that influence and are influenced by the work of scientists and engineers.' The second was improving 'discussion, understanding, and policies and practices affecting and affected by science and technology.'

Seminar members came from many fields: medicine, history, business and ethics, to name a few. At that time I was a journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and recently admitted to the California Bar, so I looked at the several case histories we studied from both angles. Two of the most interesting were the crash program attempting development of an artificial heart, described by Wikipedia as one of the long-sought scientific Holy Grails, which is still not close to success, and the widespread use of the synthetic estrogen DES on pregnant women, which resulted in many problems for their offspring. The most striking lesson I learned from our studies was how often the profit motive contaminated the results of what should be scientific research.

The project produced one major book, Worse Than the Disease: Pitfalls of Medical Progress, written by principal investigator Diana Dutton with Thomas Preston and Nancy Pfund. I wrote a couple of magazine articles myself on related topics, and learned a lot in the process. One was about the role of drug companies in promoting dangerous kinds of birth control pills to doctors, and another was about how cigarette companies successfully avoided dealing with the fires caused by their products. They were hot news at the time, but now many people are well aware of the dangers posed by the involvement of what we've come to call Big Pharma and Big Tobacco in what should be unbiased scientific study. Many recent stories have exposed pressure put on researchers by both industries to conceal risks created by their products.

But it's a different story when it comes to Big Green. Intelligent people desperately wishing for an easy fix to the real problem of climate change are suckers for greenwashing, the practice of painting dubious for-profit projects and companies as environmental salvation. Our state university's new partner BP has frequently appeared on Top Ten lists of the world's worst greenwashers compiled by non-profit environmental watchdogs, but you didn't see that in the public relations blitz which accompanied the announcement of the deal. You also didn't see anywhere except in the Planet that the planned research was exclusively aimed at producing fuels from genetically modified organisms - GMOs - now causing almost as much concern in authentic environmental circles as global warming itself.

Politicians were quick to jump on the BP bandwagon, with both Mayor Bates and Assemblymember Hancock (who should know better) appearing on the platform at the press conference which led off the campaign. The mayor's city-funded publicity blog, the Bates Update, trumpeted the news on Feb. 27 that an organization called SustainLane Government 'analyzed U.S. cities to see which led in combining Cleantech investments, infrastructure and supportive policies into a physical 'cluster.' Berkeley was named the third best in the United States.

You had to click through the included link to discover that the award was given only because of the BP-UC deal, which didn't involve the city. 'The city of Berkeley's participation ... is in the planning stages,' the SustainLane report said.

Before those plans go much further, Bates and the City Council might want to consider whether their constituents are likely to be fans of one of the biggest GMO projects ever conceived. And if there are still people at the University of California - faculty, students, even administrators - who still care about the tattered remnants of what used to be called academic freedom, they might still think about whether taking half-a-billion dollars from Big Green could pose any ethical or environmental problems downstream. The contract technically still hasn't been signed, not that there's much doubt that it will be.

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