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 million 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,” he says. “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.” But this time the University had gone too far and Chapela was flabbergasted by its 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 supported it.” A year-long tug of war over the windfall left many scars. Chapela now admits that “we made a big scandal. The Atlantic Monthly ran a front cover story [“The Kept University,” by Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, March 2000] 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 million 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,” Chapela told me. His offices are in Hilgard Hall, a dingy and decrepit Life Science building with a basement that feels like Dr. Frankenstein works down there. Notwithstanding, when the Novartis money arrived in 1998, the boodle was cut in half and the capital improvement component disappeared. Those researchers who did not complain about the con job became the beneficiaries of the Novartis money. Ignacio Chapela had stepped on other toes even more life-threatening than those of the Brahmins of Berkeley. In 2001, when the Mexican government learned of the impending Nature publication on GM corn, it went ballistico. Undersecretary 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 Chapela 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 Chapela, “but you will not stop usno one will stop us!” “I had the impression he was threatening my life,” Chapela recalls. “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,” Chapela says. “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 of the article in November 2001 triggered the anticipated bombshell. The research by Chapela and Quist 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, had sought to pre-empt publication by hiring a highpowered 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 listsery operated by AgBioWorld, a creature of the industry. The British newspaper The Guardian eventually traced the e-mail smear campaign to a Bivings front. Six months after the article on Chapela’s and Quist’s findings appeared, Nature published two letters objecting to Dr. Chapela’s research, along with what amounted to a retraction of the Mexican corn story, a first in this high-minded, purportedly neutral journal’s 133-year history. “[T]he evidence available is not sufficient to justify the original paper,” the editors wrote, saying that they wanted to allow their readers “to judge the science for themselves:’ Nature had sent them recantation forms, but Chapela and Quist refused to sign. Nature’s disavowal of his research 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 turnaround has had a chilling effect on further research into the spread of GM corn in Mexico. Chapela holds five separate studies by Mexican researchers, including one by the National Ecology continued on page 28 3/26/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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