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Biotech skeptic speaks

UC-Berkeley scientist Ignacio Chapela challenges optimism, shows harm to nature
Friday, October 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:23 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

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IGNACIO CHAPELA is an assistant professor at the University of California-Berkeley

Ever since the discovery of bacterial enzymes that could cut and join pieces of DNA, biotechnology has held great promise.

Millions of dollars have gone into researching its benefits. In Columbia, biotechnology is a key component of the new $60 million MU Life Sciences Center, which was dedicated last month amid fanfare.

But has biotechnology kept its promises of more food, more health, more jobs and more prosperity? What has this science’s impact been on academia, especially the culture of sharp questioning in science?

Those are some of the questions Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor of ecosystem sciences at the University of California-Berkeley, raised at an MU lecture this week. Chapela’s visit was sponsored by Students for Progressive Action, a group critical of Monsanto Co. and other corporate sponsors of the Life Sciences Center.

About 80 audience members in Ellis Auditorium and a roughly equal number connected from Berkeley via video conferencing heard Chapela talk about agricultural biotechnology and its consequences on society, environment and scientific inquiry.

“My goal here is to provoke you, to challenge you, to disorient you,” he said.

Although boosters hail the potential of biotechnology to transform society, evidence has emerged that genetically modified organisms might be detrimental to the environment, as well as to the health of organisms that use them for food.

Last week, The New York Times reported a scientific study found that genetically modified grass had spread its genes to wild grass species over unexpected distances. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported about four scientific studies showing detrimental effects of genetically modified organisms. One scientist, Arpad Pusztai of Hungary, discovered detrimental effects on mice who were fed genetically modified food.

Chapela entered the debate in 2001 after discovering contamination in corn from Oaxaca, Mexico. The finding was surprising because of a moratorium in Mexico on the planting of transgenic crops. Results of his study appeared in the scientific journal Nature.

Chapela’s findings raised furious debate in the scientific community worldwide. Nature refused to retract the paper in response to critics, but in a subsequent issue, it stated that it wouldn’t have printed the original article if certain technological issues had been known at the time.

In an interview after the Monday night lecture, Chapela said his goal is not to protest the role of private money in public education. Rather, he believes schools should have the choice to spend money however they see fit, rather than having donors dictate expenditures.

Chapela’s lecture left its mark on Julia Schafermeyer, a SPA member who organized his visit.

“It was interesting because he had ideas for further thought, of self-evaluation, of starting more debate within the system, rather than advocating any open position,” she said.

Clayton Larue, a biological sciences graduate student, had different feelings.

“The biggest disagreement was the lack of appreciation of biology, the curiosity that drives biological studies,” he said.

Chapela said he was disappointed to know that someone in his audience might not have sensed his respect for the curiosity that drives science.

“I thought I was singing a hymn for the curiosity in biology,” Chapela said. “My response to people who feel that way is, ‘Do you have science that is committed, to the bitter end, to keep asking questions, to keep asking why?’ ”

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