rn> Mokhiber & Weissman: THE NATURE OF THE MACHINE


Richard Moore

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Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2000 19:08:06 -0500 (EST)
From: Robert Weissman <•••@••.•••>
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Subject: [corp-focus] The Nature of the Machine
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List-Id: Sharp-edged commentary on corporate power

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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

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

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

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

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. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman


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Richard K Moore
Wexford, Irleand
Citizens for a Democratic Renaissance
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