Genetic engineering protest disrupts address

Josh Linehan

As University President Mark Yudof highlighted a year of progress in his State of the University address last Thursday, an outspoken student took a view contrary to the president’s and publicly voiced his discontent.
During the question and answer portion of the address, graduate student Drew Hempel questioned Yudof directly about the University’s involvement in genetic engineering.
Hempel said the University is out of line in continuing research into genetic engineering of crops without full knowledge of the problems and benefits it might bring. Hempel also distributed about 40 copies of the “Dis-orientation Report,” a self-published paper alleging University abuse of power and funding.
“I disagree with your premise, and I disagree with your conclusion,” Yudof said then. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Gary Muehlbauer, a wheat and barley molecular biologist who works as a genetic engineer for the University, said the University is an acknowledged leader in the field.
While he thinks care must be exercised in the area of genetic engineering, he does not support postponing research in the field.
“I think in certain cases genetic engineering can be very useful. We do have to take some time and decide where it will help and where it will hurt,” Muehlbauer said.
The British Medical Association recently called for a moratorium on genetically engineered crops, which Hempel highlighted by carrying a sign advertising the decision.
“Over 237 countries have called for a ban on genetic engineering, but, for some reason, the University has taken it upon itself to be a leader in the field,” Hempel said.
Research persists at the University — as opposed to most European countries, where the practice has been halted — because of large private donations by corporations, Hempel said.
In September, the University received a $10 million gift from Cargill for a microbial and plant genomics facility.
“Basically, public universities have become extensions of large corporations. They donate $50 million biotech centers so they can get free research and then wait for the patents. They can’t stop without giving the money back,” Hempel said. “The University is a public, nonprofit organization. It should be democratic and operate toward the public good. This hasn’t happened in this case.”
Harvey Sarles, a professor in cultural studies and comparative literature who attended the address, said that while he disagreed with Hempel’s methods to attract attention, he did agree with some of his message.
“There is room for criticism of genetically engineered foods. Europeans, in particular, are rejecting the idea and refusing to buy our genetically engineered crops,” Sarles said.
Sarles agreed that the University should slow down its research until the positives and negatives of the process and its product can be sorted out.
“It involves quite a lot of money,” Sarles said. “I’m not sure we shouldn’t go ahead, but there needs to be more discussion on the subject. If protesting the address leads to that, then I guess a goal was accomplished.”

Josh Linehan covers science and technology and welcomes comments to [email protected]