lunes, mayo 14, 2007

The BP-Berkeley Energy BioScience Institute

Drama at World's End

Mae Wan Ho

The biofuels boom is already having devastating effects on the world's poorest countries and on planet as a whole by accelerating deforestation and climate change

The US$500 million takeover of Berkeley by BP threatens to bring the world's end that much closer


On February 1, 2007, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) administration announced an agreement between a consortium led by UC B and BP (or British Petroleum before rebranding) to fund an Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) for biofuels and ‘synthetic biology' research to the tune of $500 million over the next ten years [3].

BP invited UCB as one of five universities to compete for the Institute back in August 2006; the others were Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California at San Diego in the United States, and Cambridge University and Imperial College in the United Kingdom.

The announcement created a furore among UCB faculty and students. The agreement with BP was concluded at breakneck speed, and practically no one else knew of it, and even some of those written into the agreement confessed to hearing about it for the first time.

Most serious of all was the bad science behind the push for biofuels and bioenergy crops, which could seriously damage our chances of surviving global warming [4, 5] ( Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits , Biofuels Republic Brazil , SiS 33). Already, tropical forests are cut down at the rate of more than 14 m hectares a year, releasing an estimated 21.3 Gt of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, only a fraction of which would be sequestered back into the plantation. The additional pressure from bioenergy crops will mean yet more deforestation, and a greater acceleration of global warming and species extinction.

Similarly, ‘synthetic biology' is nothing but hyped up genetic modification that has failed to deliver its promises in 30 years [6] ( Puncturing the GM Myths , SiS 22) while evidence is accumulating that the genetically modified food and feed may be inherently unsafe [7] ( GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham , ISIS scientific publication, also SiS 33).

The chair of UCB Academic Senate William Drummond explained [3] that the Academic Senate has been involved in the BP project. The Vice Chancellor of Research, Beth Burnside, a key player in negotiating the deal, has sought advice and input from the Senate committees; and she and others also met with the chairs of the committees on several occasions, and the issues raised by the EBI were discussed in the Divisional Council last fall. But there had been no open Academic Senate meeting on the EBI before the agreement was announced.

A hasty campus conference was put together on 8 March 2007, in which the protagonists would show what a good award they have landed for the University, and various apologists would remind the University of the safeguards to put in place.

As an afterthought, they agreed to give Ignacio Chapela from the ranks of those opposed to the EBI, eight minutes to speak. In the event, Chapela did not even have time to finish reading his prepared speech, which, fortunately, had been posted on the web before [8] ( Prof. Ignacio Chapela speech on the Berkeley-BP Deal , SiS 34).

Chapela, a professor of molecular genetics, is an outspoken critic of the biotech industry and of the University's ties to it. He objected to Berkeley's Bioscience faculty taking money from Novartis in 1998, and took a strong stand on the issue. In 2001, he and his graduate student published a paper in Nature on the contamination of indigenous maize landraces in Mexico by GM maize [9] ( Transgenic Pollution by Horizontal Gene Transfer? , SiS 13/14). He was denied tenure by the University in 2003, but eventually won his case when he threatened to take the University to court.

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