''They want transgenics, good or bad''
By Diego Cevallos
Biologist Ignacio Chapela, who discovered that Mexican corn had been contaminated with genetically modified material, spoke recently with Tierramérica. He denounces a campaign by the big biotech transnationals to undermine his reputation.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Ignacio Chapela, a biologist who won fame in 2001 when he discovered that native Mexican maize had been contaminated by transgenic varieties, announced in a Tierramérica interview that he is going on the offensive in a war that he says biotechnology transnational corporations have been waging against him.
After suffering what he describes as ''three years of attacks against my reputation,'' which have him on the verge of losing his job as microbial ecology professor and researcher at the prestigious University of California-Berkeley, the Mexican Chapela, 45, says he will turn to the U.S. courts to protect himself.
Chapela says he has been pressured and threatened by many, including officials of the Mexican government under President Vicente Fox, in attempts to convince him not to publish a report in the British magazine Nature on the contamination of local Mexican corn varieties by genetically modified corn.
The genetic contamination that he found, and which was later admitted by the Mexican government, occurred despite the fact that Mexico -- the birthplace of corn -- bans cultivation of transgenic maize.
Chapela says the biotech transnationals that are leading the campaign to discredit him are the same ones that are lobbying for what he says is a weak bill on biosecurity that Mexican legislative deputies approved last year, and which could become law in the next few weeks if the Senate votes in favor.
The biologist, who says he feels like a ''persona non grata'' in Mexico's scientific circles, spoke with Tierramérica by phone from his office at Berkeley.
Q: You claim that because of your stance against transgenics you are on the verge of losing your job at the university in Berkeley, where you have worked since 1997. Do you blame the biotech corporations?
A: My job has been on tenterhooks for at least three years, which have been full of attacks against my reputation. Normally the evaluation that I requested in order to be granted a tenured professorship would take six months, but in my case it has taken years, and it is possible that they'll fire me. All because of pressure from the transnational companies and from Mexican researchers who are in favor of genetic modification, like Luis Herrera (considered one of the founders of transgenic technology).
Q: All of this happened because you published your findings on the genetic contamination of Mexican corn?
A: There are really two motives. One is for having denounced the presence of transgenic corn in Mexico, for which I received threats even from some officials of the Mexican government, who said my study hurt the country; the other is that in 1998 I spoke out against the proposals for the biotech firm Novartis to take control of our department (Environmental Sciences) at Berkeley.
Q: What will you do to avoid getting fired from Berkeley university?
A: The battle we are waging is through an internal complaint in the university, and we are about to file a legal complaint with the (U.S.) courts about the coercion and threats. The lawsuit is against the university regents, but it will also include the transnationals and some Mexicans. Also, in November we created the Pulse of Science Foundation, to discuss the role of transnationals.
Q: There are several Mexican scientists, among them Luis Herrera, who don't share your ideas, and who support transgenic research. Do you think there are shadowy interests behind those scientists?
A: What do exist are obvious reasons like money. Much of the money they receive comes from those same companies, so it is not convenient that there are people like me who question what they are doing. Another reason is that many of these people have been staking their bets on biotechnology for more than 20 years and they want it to work, good or bad.
Q: Are transgenic crops really that bad?
A: Biotechnology is a series of genetic manipulations that hold great potential, of that there is no doubt. The problem is the potential effect on the massive scale release of transgenic organisms, which should not be allowed as long as the issue of their environmental safety is not clear, and as long as other cheaper and acceptable alternatives have not been evaluated.
Q: What do you think of the biosecurity law on transgenics that could take effect this year in Mexico?
A: You can see the problem in the name itself. It is a law that is going to declare these organisms are biologically safe. It is a law that legalizes transgenic contamination and prevents holding anyone responsible if problems occur, if there are accidents or damages caused by releasing transgenics into the environment. I hope that in the end the law is not passed.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.