The battle over the future of Albany’s Gill Tract has tapped into multiple, deep-seated conflicts that perennially dominate Bay Area politics, from land use and development to food ethics. But in one area, the roots of disagreement are potentially very deep: biotechnology and its uses.
Genetic engineering has been a topic of intense debate since its emergence in the early 1970s when scientists developed methods to cut and paste fragments of DNA, creating genetically modified organisms — GMOs. Some claim that GMOs represent a dangerous leap in the technological manipulation of life. Critics also point out that GMO research products benefit large corporations, producing proprietary crop varieties designed to promote industrialized models of agriculture, at the expense of small farmers and the public. Proponents, meanwhile, contend that genetic engineering is simply a new tool that could, if responsibly applied, enable humanity to better provide for the common good.
The East Bay encapsulates the entire debate like no place else. UC Berkeley and many of its spin-off companies are on the cutting edge of biotech. This university-led academic-industrial combine has arguably done more to promote the genetic engineering of food crops than any other cluster of institutions. Paradoxically, the Bay Area is also an epicenter for GMO opposition. It’s no wonder, then, that the issue has lurked in the background of the recent farm occupation in Albany.
While saying they respect the academic freedom of the current crop of UC researchers who utilize the Gill Tract, and even inviting these researchers to continue their work alongside them, organizers of the farm occupation have expressed concern with the University of California’s wider links to agribusiness corporations. Perhaps due to these criticisms, a few of the researchers who use the Gill Tract in their experiments have fired back. They said their work, and, by association, UC’s research program at the Gill Tract, isn’t connected to the biotech industry’s profit motives, nor the genetic engineering of food crops.
In an interview with Albany Patch shortly after the occupation began, Damon Lisch, a UC researcher who uses the Gill Tract in his studies, characterized his work as having nothing to do with the agenda of corporate agribusiness. “Basic research using corn as a model is different than making GMO corn to improve profits for Monsanto,” he said. In another Albany Patch article, UC researcher Sarah Hake said her research “is not to create new products (such as in genetic engineering),” but rather, “to understand basic processes in plant biology.” Most recently, Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson quoted UC researcher George Chuck, who is a member of Hake’s lab team, as saying that research at the Gill Tract is not funded by large oil and other corporate concerns.
But are the GMO-free claims of UC’s researchers true? Is research at the Gill Tract by UC’s scientists purely a public service, unconnected to corporate profits?
A survey of biotechnology patents that cite the research of these outspoken scientists shows that some of their research has, in fact, resulted in the production of GMO technologies. While UC’s researchers might not be conducting GMO trials at the Tract directly for Big Agribusiness, some of their findings have been heavily cited by private sector researchers who are developing transgenic crops for their corporate employers. In fact, Lisch, the most outspoken researcher opposed to the Gill Tract occupation, is a co-inventor of a patent that is directly applicable to GMO research.
Lisch is a named inventor of one biotechnology patent owned by UC, “Genetic functions required for gene silencing in maize.” The patent claims to solve a problem, known as “transgene silencing,” faced by developers of GMO corn. In addition, the UC Office of Technology Transfer markets the techniques described in Lisch’s patent to biotechnology companies so they can use these methods in their GMO development operations. According to the UC’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances website, the patent’s “applications” are relevant to the “genetic engineering of corn.” UC’s Office of Technology Transfer says it’s university policy to keep the names of corporations that are licensing a specific technology confidential, so it’s not clear who is using Lisch’s patented research findings to develop GMO corn.
Researcher Chuck’s insistence that his work at the Gill Tract isn’t funded by industry might be technically true, but his research has also been patented and marketed, not by UC, but by a private biotechnology company called DNA Plant Technology Corporation, which was headquartered on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland during the 1990s, giving researchers physical access to UC’s resources, including the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany. DNA Plant Technology’s intellectual property holdings were bought by the Bionova Holding Corporation in the mid-1990s. Bionova markets numerous GMO plant varieties, and has “major technology relationships” with Monsanto and UC, according to the company’s website.
The academic research of UC’s Gill Tract scientists also serves as an important building block in private industry’s biotech efforts. A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s online database reveals more than a dozen patents or patent applications that cite Hake’s research. One patent that cites Hake’s corn research involves inserting genetic material from another life form from outside the plant kingdom. The owner of the patent is DeKalb Genetics Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto. Lisch’s research is also referenced in patents involving the genetic manipulation of food crops by Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.
A reference to academic research within a patent does not mean the cited researcher necessarily endorses the end product, or intended to facilitate its creation. Furthermore, a few patents citing Lisch and Hake’s research do not involve genetic engineering methods, but instead employ more “traditional” means of plant breeding or modification. Neither Lisch nor Hake responded to requests for comment.
The University of California is a major contributor to the development of genetically engineered food crops, and the Plant Gene Expression Center, which uses the Gill Tract, is a large part of UC’s link to the biotech industry. UC owns more than 150 GMO plant patents, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office. UC policy states that financial proceeds from licensed technologies are shared with the inventors, and that the remainder is plowed back into research at the university or put into the general fund.
According to UC’s most recent annual report, the university earned approximately $182 million on its patented technologies on 2011. A mere 25 UC-owned patents earned the bulk of this — about $155 million. Among these are licenses for four different varieties of strawberries and a mandarin orange. Through a licensing arrangement with UC, one of the strawberries, the Camarosa, was genetically engineered by DNA Plant Technology Corporation to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The Camarosa Strawberry patent earned the university $2.36 million last year.
Many other UC patents are routinely licensed by biotech companies to develop GMO crops, like the Endless Summer Tomato, another product of DNA Plant Technology. Such deals are lucrative for UC. The university had 627 active plant licensing contracts with industry at the end of last year. More than a few of these were developed from research conducted at the Plant Gene Expression Center. Hake is the center’s director.
Monsanto and UC have at least twenty agreements “that include licensing, sharing materials for research, sponsoring research, and utilizing their specialized, technical services,” according to Kelly Clauss, a Monsanto spokeswoman. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the University of California, as well as many other land-grant universities across the country, for decades,” Clauss added. “As a company rooted in science and research, we are proud to work with universities and support agricultural research through these types of collaborative programs.”
Organizers of Occupy the Farm contacted for this article said they support academic freedom, and were wary of jumping into any debates about the nature of research that has been conducted at the Gill Tract. After planting their crops in late April, Occupy the Farm organizers posted several open letters to all the researchers inviting them to continue their projects alongside the working farm.