Gill Tract occupation impedes agricultural research

Anjelica Colliard/Staff

Related Posts

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.

Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comment policy
  • damon

    I imagine this article could have been less dickish.

  • OTF

    fuck you damon and all that you stand for

    • Jana1

       Damon stands for bettering mankind through understanding how plants grow, a goal consistent with the University of California.  I’d say he stands for a heck of lot more than a troll like you

  • Adsahjh

    Damon, good article, but you’re a liberal, I would guess. (If not, I apologize and you can ignore the rest of my comment.) You are thus responsible for tolerating the worldview that disrespects property rights that has allowed this ‘occupation’ to happen. You are guilty in this too.

  • Thanks for the details here–they are definitely being lost in the discussion I’m hearing.

    Sadly, Occupiers are aiming at the wrong target. They are no better than the Tea Party if they just blindly follow some propaganda and cause the kind of collateral damage to publicly funded science that they seem intent to do. 

  • Magda Quandt

    Well written Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels. You may now place the gold star just under the swastika which is etched into your forehead. Thank you.

    • Stan De San Diego

       Even for an idiot lefty, that was pretty stupid.

  • Bfg

    As a 30 year resident of Albany i object to squatters taking over the Gil track in the name of the community. What community? Albany has been involved in negotiations with the University for years. The plan now would make this space available as open space and playing fields which are desperately needed in our overbuilt city. The full plan also provides for a Whole Foods market and senior housing which we really need. So who is this community that has decided what we need is for them to operate a farm in the middle of Albany?

  • Ninjaman

    Where’d you get non-GMO corn? Can I have some?

  • meimei

    Unfortunately scientists who fail to take responsibility for the applications of their research are not being so kind and caring of people and the planet. The Union of Concerned Scientists lend some discussion on the responsibility to, not just the research, but to the possible outcomes. It’s called integrity.
    Thanks to the researchers of the past who discovered that agent orange would not only defoliate, but maim and destroy embryos, babies, children, adults, and veterans. Was that kind? Was it compassionate? I’m sure they were interested in their research too.
    Make friends with any homeless vietnam veteran who is still so sick, Mr. Lisch.
    Your absolution of responsibility is your own. Don’t lay it on people who want to farm organically and safely, who took up “your” space. I am not for their tactics, but it’s not “your” land either. 
    I am sure you are a nice guy, great family, lovely neighborhood, concerned about your livelihood–who isn’t?
    The picture you paint though is of a victim. I disagree with your victimhood.
    Poisoning and maiming people  is the ultimate trespass.
    Ask any vietnamese or vet who has tried to support their disabled family while dying of lymphomas, cancers, deformed limbs, and other damages. Here’s to education and compassion in research.

    • Guest

      [Poisoning and maiming people  is the ultimate trespass.]

      What the fuck does this have to do with Lisch and his research, specifically?

      Your blathering indicates you are clutching at straws in your attempts to smear this researcher.

      Quite typical of you brain-dead, adolescent Occupy types.

      • meimei

        If you don’t know what this has to do with this research then it looks like you are the QTOYBDAOT. Nice language.

        • I see you can’t address the point, you ignorant child. What does any of this research have to do with the use of a chemical defoliant during wartime? Once a again, you’re coming up with anything you can throw against the wall to see if it will stick, as a substitute for a reasoned argument.

    • I_h8_disqus

      So you are comparing research to see how plants develop and regulate their genes with agent orange, and you don’t think research into how plants develop is responsible or has integrity.  Are you sure this is the argument you want to make against Mr. Lisch?

  • Thanks so much Damon, it’s not to be presented fact vs fiction

  • InTranslation

    I am in awe at the calm, measured, sensible remarks of Dr. Lisch.   One might expect him to be enraged by the complete disregard of the occupiers for his research, for the work of his research assistants, and for his well-regarded projects in plant genetics.  In what way do these projects represent “a capitalistic approach to agriculture?”   Incredible. 

  • Calalum

    Lisch, you are cherry picking quotes to paint a very unrepresentative picture of the debate.    This is a propaganda hitpiece and not a fair representation.  From what I’ve heard about you, they could easily cherrypick quotes of  yours to make it seem like you don’t care about your research at all, or to present out of context to make you look ignorant. 

    Also, noone wants you to be collateral damage… you keep harping on that even as these activists are literally BEGGING you to plant your damn corn this season.  You are playing the victim.

    Its not just the activists that seized a moral high-ground  here, its you too with your response to this whole debacle.  And I’d venture to say it is you who is losing it with this unyielding, repetitive refrain, not them.

    • Stan De San Diego

       > Its not just the activists that seized a moral high-ground  here

      They have NO moral grounds whatsoever walking in and appropriating land that is not theirs, much less any “moral high ground”.

    • Damon Lisch


      • I_h8_disqus

        Have you run into begging occupiers asking you to get rid of the seeds they have planted and replace them with your corn research?

    • Carlos

       Lots of attacks and name calling, but no reasoning or substance.  Typical occupier.  How are your Black Bloc friends?

  • Stan De San Diego

    > 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.” 

    I wonder how many of these foaming left-wingers with their fanatical hatred of “capitalism” have any idea how well their proposed alternative (collective farming) has fared instead. Sorry, but the track record of collective farming in places such as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Zimbabwe is far less than stellar.

    > “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?

    It only sounds “menacing” if you’re an ignorant, uneducated paranoid bed-wetting type living in mortal fear of some global corporation bogeyman hiding under your bed at night.

  • antioccupy

    Bravo, a clear thinker.  Try talking to any of the occupiers squatting on Gill tract, they obviously have no idea who they are doing.

  • bp berkeley protest

    What happens to your open air research lab when the University paves over it?

    • Stan De San Diego

      Given that you probably haven’t paid a dime’s worth of state income tax, you worthless parasite, what business is it of yours? You and your ilk aren’t the ones paying the bills.

      • Berkeleyprotest

        Getting desperate?

        •  No, pointing out the truth. Most (if not all) of you childish protesters only engage in this crap because you’re not gainfully occupied with either school or employment. Those of you who are students are typically majoring in the usual fluff basket-weaving or victim’s studies course which don’t take much more work than regurgitating whatever nonsense the prof is spewing, so you have way too much free time on your hands. Even with your idiotic disruption of the research in progress on that small plot of land, most of those engaged in that work (before you get there and f*cked it up) will contribute far more to society than you attention-starved children ever will.

        • Stan De San Diego

          No, I’m responding to your rhetorical question with one of my own. Given that you’re not the one doing the research OR paying the bills, what business is it of yours? Are you some authority on what conditions are best suitable for their research? Whether it will be paved over at some time in the future (which per some sources sounds like yet another lie by the Occupy cretins) doesn’t impact what can continue today. Once again, it’s not your decision to make.

        • Carlos

           I think getting desperate is what Occuyp has become.    Broken any car windows in the Mission lately?

  • Melissa

    This is a beautifully argued statement, Damon.  Thank you.