Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A small victory

Ignacio Chapela was working as an untenured professor at the University of California at Berkeley when he uncovered contamination from genetically engineered corn in Mexican fields where GMO plants had long been banned. He confirmed what biotech critics had long been saying. GMO crops would ultimately contaminate the world's non-GMO food. His findings were a bombshell.

The biotech industry went right to work hiring a public relations firm which had staffers pretending to be scientists send emails criticizing Chapela's work. So careless was the firm that their emails were traced and the true identities of the senders were revealed. The smear campaign, however, took its toll. In addition, Chapela's criticism of the university's acceptance of a large grant for GMO research landed him in hot water with higher-ups. Despite the fact that he was nearly unanimously recommended for tenure, a special committee headed by a professor deeply connected to the GMO grant voted to deny him his tenure and Berkeley administrators went along.

Chapela's case became an international cause célèbre. Berkeley faculty as well as scientists and activists from around the world protested the denial and called for a reconsideration.

Finally last week, not long after Chapela filed a lawsuit, Berkeley administrators reversed themselves and granted Chapela tenure. In the immediate aftermath Chapela couldn't say where he expected his research to go, but he promised not to be silent on the GMO issue.

It's a small victory. But small ones can add up.

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