About 20 Cal graduates protest keynote speaker (22/5/2007)

GM Watch comment: Hats off to the Berkeley grads who undertook this protest. It seems to have been both dignified and effective, given that it was taking place at a graduation ceremony.

That doesn't seem to have stopped the San Francisco Chronicle's reporter soaking up the College of Natural Resources' spin on what was going on pretty uncritically. But then he's hardly alone in failing to delve more deeply into what Florence Wambugu really represents.

Following a visit by Wambugu to Australia, one commentator asked, 'is it too cynical to suggest that having a black African as the face of a multinational chemical company is a spin doctor's dream? This seems to have lobotomised some journalists who have treated her views like the tablets from the Mount. Even the normally rigorous Jon Faine interviewed her in a way that was almost fawning.' (GM science can be blinding, Rankin McKay, Herald Sun, July 30, 2003)

Uncritical media coverage of a lobbying trip by Wambugu to Canada also drew comment, 'A black African woman in colourful traditional dress delivering a sermon on feeding the hungry of Africa is a real show stopper. And the right-wing press love it. They don't bother to ask about the sources of the sensational numbers she throws about, they don't ask to see the research studies to back up her claims for biotechnology or the world of African farmers that she paints in simplistic terms. They don't ask who is paying her way around the world. Perhaps they just don't want to appear impolite, even if truth is the victim.'

At Berkeley, Wambugu wisely avoided punting biotech and stuck to offering the graduates careers advice. That's something she can claim to know a deal about, given her own remarkable success in building herself a career out of diverting media attention, and financial, human, and intellectual resources, from focusing on productive research that actually meets the needs of poor farmers.

She has done it so successfully that her lies and deceit have won her accolades and awards. And in a very real sense Florence Wambugu could be said to embody the whole bogus biotech project. READ ON


About 20 Cal graduates protest keynote speaker
Rick DelVecchio
San Francisco Chronicle, May 20 2007

A handful of seniors who graduated today from UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources wore green sashes or armbands to protest Nairobi-based plant pathologist Florence Wambugu's appearance as their ceremony's keynote speaker.

The students said they disagree with Wambugu's views on the use of biotechnology in combating hunger in Africa, but Wambugu did not address the topic, instead urging students to think big and take risks in their careers.

Out of some 300 graduating students, about 20 wore the armbands or sashes, and four or five raised them in the air as Wambugu spoke. No one interrupted her or walked out. And several students gave her a standing ovation.

One student graduating in conservation and resource studies, Jason Boschetti, handed out leaflets and armbands to spectators instead of participating in the ceremony. Boschetti said he believes genetically modified crops help the companies that make them more than the farmers who use them. He called genetic modification "crack for farmers."

The protesters' leaflet said the sashes were "an affirmation of student support for sustainable agriculture, global diversity and for education and research in the public good and not surreptitiously controlled by private or corporate interests."

The leaflet also protested the college's receipt of funds from private sponsors such as BP, which is financing a $500 million biofuels research institute to be hosted by UC Berkeley.

When a committee of faculty, students and staff weighed speaker nominations, Wambugu emerged at the top of the list, said college public affairs director Cyril Manning.

"The committee was impressed with her life's work addressing problems of hunger and poverty in Africa, her unique set of experiences and her deep involvement in issues of great interest to the college: agriculture, nutrition and sustainability," Manning wrote in an e-mail before the event.

Wambugu grew up on a small farm, earned a Ph.D from the University of Bath in England and returned to Africa to become CEO of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International. She told the graduates that having a degree is not enough.

"Be flexible," she said. "Life calls for moving and not just becoming stuck someplace. To pursue your dream, you need to move. Whether you like it or not, you have to take some risks and you have to sacrifice for your dream."

E-mail Rick DelVecchio at [email protected]

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive