2004 -- John Ross feature in theava.com via CropChoice
news: Seated on the balcony of his appropriately
professorial office upon a sun-stroked hillock in the
midst of the Life Science complex on the hallowed Berkeley
campus of the University of California, the controversial
Mexican-born microbiologist Ignacio Chapela, an academic
who has dared to lock horns with the potentates of Big
Biotech, reflected upon the tenuous status of his employment.
"They will never forgive me here," the curly-haired,
Cupid-mouthed Chapela sighed disconsolately, his gaze
fixed upon the Campanile, the Berkeley campus's most
recognizable landmark, as if it were a stand-in for
Chancellor Robert Berdahl himself.
"It really began with the mushrooms," Chapela
explains, going back to the beginning. In the late 1980s,
his brother Paco had become involved with a group of
Oaxacan Indians, Zapotecos and Chinantecos in the Sierra
del Norte of that highly indigenous southern Mexican
state, who were battling a major highway that threatened
to carry their forests off to a proposed International
Paper pulp mill up in Tuxtepec. Coming together in a
pioneer Indian organization acronymed UZACHI, the Zapotecs
and Chinantecos of Calpulapan, a tiny municipality high
in the sierra, successfully fended off the loggers and
saved their forests.
But after Big Timber, came the Japanese hunting prized
Matsutaki mushrooms that are associated with the high
pine forests and which sell for $600 a pound amongst
Tokyo's gourmands. "I was a microbiologist and
Paco invited me to explain what it was all about to
UZACHI - the Indians suspected that the mushrooms had
to do with drugs. That was when I first came to Calpulapan."
Chapela was soon up to his eyeballs in negotiating
between the Indians and the Japanese mushroom rustlers
who were often armed. The villagers, buoyed by the victory
over the pulp mill, soon decided to take control of
the mushrooms for themselves and began growing them
for commercial markets. Chapela, now a trusted advisor,
borrowed money from Mexico City friends to set up a
rudimentary rustic laboratory up in Calpulapan that
would keep tabs on the quality of the product.
After the mushrooms came the orchids. While UZACHI
was finding niche markets for its exotic exports, its
real sustenance came from the abundant cornfields that
surround Calpulapan. Maize or "Maiz" was first
domesticated in the altiplano of Puebla and Oaxaca five
millenniums ago. The region extending from the Valley
of Tehuacan in Puebla state to Mitla and beyond in Oaxaca
is truly the cradle of world corn.
By the turn of the millennium, Ignacio Chapela, who
had once worked for the Swiss biotech pioneer Sandoz
which, in turn, had merged with Ciba Cigy to form the
all-powerful Novartis conglomerate, was fretting the
fate of Mexican corn. Under the North American Free
Trade Agreement, Mexico was being inundated by millions
of tons of cheap NAFTA-driven corn courtesy of the U.S.
and Canada, as much as 6,000,000 a year. Because the
corn was designated not for human consumption, no one
seemed worried about the consequences although much
of this deluge was genetically modified. Given prohibitions
on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by both Japan
and the European Union, Greenpeace-Mexico considers
that US farmers are dumping their GMO corn south of
the border - as much as 60% of all NAFTA corn imports
may be contaminated. "I was worried about the implications
but still thought they were five to ten years down the
road," recalls Chapela.
In October of 2000, the microbiologist dispatched a
graduate student, David Quist, to Oaxaca to conduct
workshops about the coming of genetically modified corn.
"I was shocked when David called me to report that
our lab in Calpulapan was already finding positives
on contamination." Keeping the findings under wraps,
Quist returned to Berkeley with the samples and after
rigorous testing both on and off campus, the results
were confirmed in March 2001. Quist and Chapela began
compiling a paper to be submitted to the prestigious
British scientific journal Nature describing
their alarming discovery. But rather than garnering
laurels for the microbiologist and his assistant, the
revelations would put the kibosh on Chapela's academic
In all fairness to his superiors, Ignacio Chapela had
always stuck like an ornery thistle in the throats of
the Berkeley poobahs. He had been brought on board as
an assistant professor in 1995 almost certainly because
of his association with Novartis and two years later,
a rising star in academia, Ignacio had become the president
of the faculty committee of his department. But despite
his previous affiliation with the Biotech moguls, Chapela
was not a gung-ho advocate of the industry. As a member
of the National Academy of Science's committee reviewing
the impacts of genetic manipulation of crops, he had
raised questions about the unintentional spread of GMOs,
particularly from US export agriculture. "I was
already thinking about Mexican corn but my peers told
me to concern myself only with impacts in the continental
"This smelled like a cover-up to me. Who was going
to look into the spread of GMOs?" Certainly not
the International Commission for the Betterment of Maize,
a Rockefeller Foundation-funded biotech stalking horse
which has been growing gm corn at its Texcoco station
in the state of Mexico since the early 1980s. Indeed,
Chapela charges, most of the varieties of gm corn now
flooding Mexico were first developed at Texcoco. Mexico,
with its two growing seasons, is an excellent laboratory
for the biotech industry, he explains.
One morning in early 1997, Dr. Chapela was summoned
to his dean's office and informed that the university
was about to announce a five year $50,000,000 grant
from Novartis. In return, Chapela's old company would
get a first look at all research papers produced by
the department. Since the grant accounted for a third
of the department's budget, Novartis would get first
dibs on a third of the department's research. "My
gut reaction was that the company was trying to buy
the university. I knew all about that. In fact, I had
tried to do the same thing with the Scripps Institute
in San Diego when Novartis first decided it needed a
West Coast beachhead."
Ignacio was flabbergasted by the university's shameless
hucksterism. "The faculty had not even been told
of the Novartis grant and the Chancellor's office was
already putting out press releases claiming that we
A year-long tug of war over the windfall - the crown
jewel of Chancellor Berdahl's reign at Berkeley - left
many scars. "I admit that we made a big scandal.
The Atlantic Monthly ran a front cover story and then
state senator Tom Hayden held hearings in Sacramento.
I think they can never forgive me for this."
Consciences were purchased to win support for the Novartis
buy-out. The biotech giant had offered $50,000,000 over
five years, half for research and half for what was
called "capital improvements". "You can
see for yourself how our conditions have deteriorated
here" - Dr. Chapela's offices are in Hillgard Hall,
a dingy and decrepit Life Science building with a basement
that feels like Dr. Frankenstein works down there and
a ton of mercury in its drains. Notwithstanding, when
the Novartis grant kicked in in 1998, the boodle was
cut in half and the capital improvement component disappeared.
Those researchers who did not complain about the apparent
conflict in interest became the beneficiaries of the
Ignacio Chapela had stepped on other toes even more
life threatening than those of the Brahmans of Berkeley.
The Mexican government had learned of the impending
Nature publication and went ballistic. Under-secretary
of Agriculture Victor Villalobos fired off a furious
letter accusing the microbiologist of "doing incalculable
damage" to the nation's agriculture and economy.
"We hold you personally responsible," Villalobos
wrote in an epistle that still retains a place of honor
on Chapela's crowded desk.
The director of Mexico's bio-security commission, Dr.
Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, summoned Ignacio to a meeting
in an abandoned building in a wooded zone just outside
Mexico City. "'You have gotten yourself into some
serious shit this time,' he told me, 'but you will not
stop us - no one will stop us!' I had the impression
he was threatening my life. Was he going to rub me out?
This was like a bad Mafia movie."
When Ortiz Monasterio saw that Dr. Chapela was not
going to retract the Nature piece, he moved
on the media. Knowing that Nature would cancel
an article if its contents were leaked to the press
prior to publication, he released the study to select
members of the media. "Actually, this backfired
on them. I was in Paris and Le Monde ran the story on
the front page right below the bombings in Afghanistan.
Nature was already getting cold feet because
of industry pressures and told us our paper was not
interesting to a general audience, but now the Le Monde
story made it interesting again."
The publication in November 2001 triggered the anticipated
bombshell. The article seemed to suggest that wind-blown
GMOs had been the vector of contamination in Calpulapan
- the industry has always insisted that such a spread
could not occur. Moreover, the laboratory studies indicated
that the altered genes were jumping around within the
genome of the plant and could even spread to other species.
The implications were frightening. Thousands of years
of maize cultivation and millions of years of biological
history would be lost. Hundreds of native species were
at risk of homogenization. Biodiversity was threatened
by the gm corn. In its stead would come seed dependency
with biotech titans like Novartis, Monsanto, Dow, and
Dupont controlling the Mexican market.
Big Biotech, alerted to the Mexican corn study in advance,
sought to pre-empt publication by hiring a high-powered
Washington PR firm, the Bivings Group, which specializes
in internet subterfuge. The Chapela-Quist study had
barely touched down on the newsstands when an orchestrated
barrage of letters decrying "fundamental flaws"
in the research began clogging up the list serve operated
by AgBioWorld, a creature of the industry. Investigative
reportage by the British Guardian failed to verify the
existence of the authors but traced the computer used
to generate the e-mail campaign to one operated by a
Six months later, Nature would publish two
letters objecting to Dr. Chapela's research, one attributed
to a Berkeley colleague and both from parties to the
Novartis agreement, along with what amounted to a retraction
of the Mexican corn story, the first in the journal's
133-year history. "Nature sent us recantation
forms but David and I refused to sign them."
Nature's disavowal weighs heavily upon Ignacio
Chapela's academic standing. "I am now a liability
to the department and they are not going to give me
tenure," he rues. But what stings most is that
Nature's turn-around has had a chilling effect
on further research into the spread of gm corn in Mexico.
Chapela holds five separate studies by Mexican researchers,
one by the National Ecology Institute and another even
by Villalobos's agriculture secretariat, that confirm
his research but no academic journal has seen fit to
publish the findings. "The Mexican government does
not want those papers published and, of course, neither
does the biotech industry, so they will not appear anywhere."
"They have made an example of me. Other scientists
see this and decide that maybe they should go back to
studying the bristles on the back of a bug."
That Ignacio Chapela would be denied tenure was a foregone
conclusion. Yet when his tenure application was submitted
three years ago, his college voted unanimously to support
it and the department favored the application 32 to
1. With such strong backing, the dean with whom Chapela
had scuffled over the Novartis grant had little choice
but to sign off on it.
The flimflam hit the fan when the recommendation went
to the Berkeley academic senate. A secret committee
was assigned to evaluate Chapela's tenure bid but the
pressure from the Chancellor's office for a negative
was so over-arching the chairperson resigned. The process
was "disgraceful" committee member Wayne Getz
told the Journal of Higher Education. In the end, the
rejection was expected - the last four non-white applicants
from his department for tenure had all been rejected
and Chapela does not discount racism as a factor in
the university's decision.
Not about to accept the turndown without a fight, Ignacio
set up his desk, two chairs, his teapot, biscuits and
some books outside California Hall last June for five
days while the solons decided his fate. The 24-hour-a-day
vigil drew further press attention and international
support. "It was amazing - people came and stayed
with me. There were e-mails from all over the world."
Instead of tenure, the university offered a one-year
extension on Chapela's contract that is now in its last
months. Meanwhile, Chapela has appealed the rejection
of tenure to the Chancellor's office and is talking
with attorneys about a civil suit if no redress is forthcoming.
"They have so damaged my academic reputation that
I will never have another job in a first tier university,"
he concludes morosely.
"I am living proof of what happens when biotech
buys a university. The first thing that goes is independent
research. The university is a delicate organism. When
its mission and orientation are compromised, it dies.
Corporate biotechnology is killing this university."