CORPORATE FOCUS: An Unlikely Biotech Critic
Imagine this: you study your entire life to reach the pinnacle of your profession. First, you secure an undergraduate degree in biology from Oregon State University. Then a PhD in developmental biology at Yale University. Then on to Indiana University, where you teach and run a lab on the cutting edge of plant research.And you have tenure. But you wake up one day and realize that by doing the scientific research, you are creating the road map for corporations to come in and apply the science for profit, thus destroying the nature that attracted you to the study of biology in the first place.By this time you have become well known in your field. You are "respected." In 1990, your lab gets the cover story in The Plant Cell, the leading journal of the field. But exactly one month later, you decide to write an editorial for the same publication announcing that such scientific research is unethical and that you will no longer conduct such research, thus effectively ending your scientific career.That, in a nutshell, is the career trajectory of Martha Crouch, a Professor of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington.As a leading researcher in the field of plant molecular biology, Crouch got in on the ground floor, when corporations were just starting to become interested in biotechnology. In fact, Crouch consulted with a few of the them in the late 1980s, including the giant British multinational Unilever.Then, in 1989, Crouch picked up a copy of the New Scientist magazine and read how Unilever was using her tissue culture research to harvest palm trees in the tropics.Palm trees are grown for the oil in their seeds. The seeds are used for snack foods and industrial lubricants. Unilever wanted to expand its palm oil operations, but the trees were too variable in size to be industrialized.So, Unilever tried to make genetically uniform oil palm trees through tissue culture."Some of the work that we did on rapeseed tissue culture helped them perfect their techniques so they could make identical copies of the plant and create large plantations of genetically identical palms," Crouch told us recently.Unilever started buying out small farmers in places like Malaysia. Crouch learned that the resulting oil palm boom was responsible for the cutting down of tropical rainforests and the displacement of indigenous peoples. Also, processing factories for palm oil caused severe water pollution.After reading the article, she asked herself: How could the research we did in our lab be applied in this way that damaged nature?That question, combined with her day-to-day feeling of disconnection from nature, stopped her in her tracks. She began to re-examine what she was doing with her life. And that re-examination led to her editorial in Plant Cell announcing that she was quitting research because she thought it could not be done ethically.The editorial drew scores of responses, many of them from scientists who, like Crouch, felt uneasy about the new emerging biotechnology companies and how they were hijacking basic plant cell research.But many others were angry with Crouch. One of her colleagues confronted Crouch and told her she was "more dangerous than Hitler," apparently on the grounds that her views might limit government funding for researchers like him, and that might slow the progress of medical or agricultural discovery. "Therefore millions of people would die that wouldn't have to die if science was progressing at a faster rate," she says. "And I would be responsible for this carnage. "But Crouch had come to a different world view.She came to believe, for example, that the Green Revolution -- the use of mechanized and chemical agriculture -- had resulted in an incredible increase in hunger around the world. Farmers worldwide were better off growing food organically and with appropriate technology -- as they had done for thousands of years."You are basically treating the agricultural environment as if it was a factory where you are making televisions or VCRs," Crouch said. "If nature is not a machine, if organisms are not machines, then to treat them as if they are, is going to create big problems."Some of her students have quit the study of biology to pursue sustainable agriculture -- one is a logger in Kentucky who uses draft horses -- but most are working for the biotech industry -- one is at Monsanto and is responsible for helping to commercialize genetically engineered corn and soybeans.Crouch herself will quit her tenured position at Indiana University at the end of this semester. After deciding in 1990 to not continue her research, the department prohibited her from teaching science students. For the last ten years, she has been teaching non-science students about the food system.Crouch taught her students that we would be better off if we prevent the food system from being further industrialized. And she urges everyone to reconnect with nature.She's taking the lead, leaving the high-tech university setting and heading back to the local farmers market -- inspecting mushrooms for the City of Bloomington."Local people all over the world know from experience which mushrooms are poisonous and which are not," she says. "We've lost that ability."Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.