Ignacio Chapela doesn't really enjoy talking about our food crops being harmed by genetic engineering. But he talks about it anyway. "I try to avoid it because it causes so much pain," says Chapela, a microbial ecologist and mycologist at UC Berkeley. The pain he refers to is not caused by the topic but the inevitable repercussions from a multibillion dollar industry. "The people who are invested in bioengineering," he says, "are people with a lot of money and power. They can make your life very difficult."
So Chapela, an associate professor, has a difficult life working for a public institution once obliged to answer to the public but which is slowly shifting its loyalties to such corporations as BP, a big player in bioengineering for fuels. (I wonder: will the academic rules at Cal soon include denying tenure to any professor who criticizes the corporate sponsors?)
"I am paid by the public of California," Chapela underscores, "and I see this as part of my job to talk about synthetic biology." Because the public caught glimpses of its dark underside, genetic engineering has been rebranded as "synthetic biology," according to Chapela. "'Synthetic biology' sounds really cool, and people haven't had the opportunity to track the fact that it's the same thing," Chapela claims, pointing to the worst outcomes of bioengineering.
"A company in San Diego, now closed, claimed that they produced a corn that contained spermicide, a male contraceptive. We know it is a biological fact that those genes will mix. There will be spermicide in corn flakes," Chapela explains. "I believe there should be a public discussion of whether or not we want spermicidal corn flakes."
Winner of the 2005 Jenifer Altman Award for "outstanding commitment and service to promote and protect human and ecological health" and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Special Committee on the Environmental Impacts of Transgenic Crops, Chapela has been sought internationally for his policy advice on genetic engineering and the issue of sovereignty over genetic resources. His position is that the bioengineering—or synthetic biology—promise hasn't materialized, and the general public needs to take actions that are out of the ordinary. They need to talk about what kind of world they actually want to live in.
There are political and commercial interests that do not wish for such discussion to take place. "About 25 percent of this year's crop of corn is going to produce ethanol for our cars," Chapela says. "This includes the introduction of traits beneficial to making fuel. And you don't want fuel in your corn flakes. You shouldn't mix biofuel plants with food plants. This will impact human health. And so will farming for pharmaceuticals, which might get in your food through cross-pollination. Sooner or later, you'll have it in your corn flakes."
If only it was constrained to breakfast cereals. Unfortunately, corn is ubiquitous in processed foods and corn syrup used in cheap foods frequently purchased by the poor. And Chapela is advising us to talk about it. Why?
Small group discussion gives people a chance to air concerns and process feelings about what is happening largely without our knowledge. Chapela remembers a small prescreening of the movie The Future of Food. "The director invited some of us to view the movie and to comment before it was released. There were maybe 50 of us in the audience, and after the show some people had tears streaming down their faces. Their comments were, 'You can't do this to people. You can't just leave it there.'" So the ending was changed to include actions to take.
"People need to decide what they want and then do something out of the ordinary," Chapela says.
An opportunity to do just that comes Thursday, Oct. 7, in Napa with a screening of 'The Future of Food' at the Napa Valley College, Room 838. Dr. Chapela, who appears in the film, will answer questions after the showing. 2277 Napa-Vallejo Highway, Napa. 6:30pm. $5 donation. 707.257.74350.