Gill Tract occupation impedes agricultural research

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Anjelica Colliard/Staff

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Spring is a busy time for a maize geneticist. Experiments have to be planned, students have to be recruited and thousand of seeds have to be carefully organized and packaged for planting. It is important to get everything just right, because we only get one opportunity to do large-scale field experiments each year.

The cross-pollinations that we do in the summer are at the heart of our research; everything flows from them. Imagine my dismay, then, when I drove by our field this past weekend and saw that it was filled with strangers.

For years, we have been aware that our field space, part of the Gill Tract, was eventually slated for some other form of use. However, the slow pace of negotiations between UC Berkeley, the local government and various citizen groups seemed to ensure that this process would be long and drawn out and would have involved finding us a replacement site and plenty of time to plan our move.

Local democracy is messy, particularly in a place like Albany, where everyone seems to have an opinion and no one is ever completely satisfied. One compromise that had been reached was that a Whole Foods Market and a senior center would be built at another site on the Gill Tract. This was unacceptable to some people, so they occupied our research field.

The aim was to protect the Gill Tract so that it can be used for sustainable agriculture — an admirable goal, since everyone loves urban gardening. The occupiers pulled up the winter cover of mustard plants and proceeded to plant thousands of vegetable seedlings in the best part of the field, which had been carefully maintained over the years by our excellent field staff.

The result was a made-for-TV propaganda coup, with urban farmers of all ages happily occupying what I suspect many of them thought was unused land. Both local and national coverage was generally positive, since no one can resist such appealing images and such a good cause. The rest is just details. But, of course, sometimes the devil is in the details.

Contrary to what was claimed initially, the Whole Foods Market actually had been slated to be built on a nearby empty lot, not our field space. But that lot would have been difficult to farm, and our space had been carefully tended for many years.

What about the scientists who were just about to plant in the field and whose research and education programs are dependent on using it? Well, we were told, you can just go somewhere else. Besides, you work on corn, which we all know is a bad plant.

As reported by Alternet, Robbie Zeinstra remarked, “Most of the research being done here is corn genetic isolation. It could be harmless or it could be used for genetic modification and more of a capitalist approach to agriculture.”  He also pointed out that, “We don’t know if the researchers on this plot are being funded by Novartis, Syngenta or BP. We can assume so.” Well, that all sounds kind of menacing, doesn’t it?

According to the Albany Patch, Ashoka Finley said, “Our position is that we don’t really need any more corn research.” Seriously? The vast majority of our research is devoted to using maize as a model in order to understand basic questions concerning how all plants develop and how they regulate their genes. Surely this is important, unless you believe that nothing useful ever comes from basic research. Further, the research done at the Gill Tract is funded by the federal government, not corporations, and we are not permitted to grow GMOs at Gill.

So it would appear that both the location of the proposed development and the nature of the research that was being blocked by this occupation were either misrepresented or, more charitably, misunderstood.

The activists involved have made a series of poor decisions based on inadequate information. They appear to be unhappy with the messy, slow and unsatisfying process of local democracy and have decided to take matters into their own hands for our own good and in the name of “the community.” To do that, they had to break the law and jeopardize the research and education that normally would take place at the Gill Tract.

Various members of this diffuse group of activists, as well as some academics, tell us that this occupation is part of a larger struggle for sustainable agriculture. They seem to feel that if the work of a few scientists and their students has to be sacrificed for the greater good, then so be it, particularly if that research isn’t the kind of which they approve.

Apparently, we are to be collateral damage in a great and noble struggle. But that, of course, is just the problem. As noble as the goals might be, it is not right for a group of self-appointed guardians of the land to decide for the rest of us how this space is to be used. It is not right for them to block research that is paid for by all of us, and it is certainly not right for them to make unilateral decisions about whose research is or is not acceptable.

Sustainable agriculture is a fine idea, but so is respect for other people. The activists lost the moral high ground when they forgot that.

Damon Lisch is an associate research professional in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.