University open letter addresses ‘confusion’ on Gill Tract

Occupy the Farm protestors on the Gill Tract. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The University of California Berkeley has responded to the self-styled “Occupy the Farm” protest at the Gill Tract with an open letter to neighbors. In the letter, university administrators describe what they call “confusion and concern” over the property and future plans.

The letter cites a five-year long collaborative “community engagement process” which Occupy the Farm “has little regard for”. It explains that the “agricultural fields on the Gill Tract that are now being occupied are not the site of a proposed assisted living center for senior citizens and a grocery store. The proposed development parcel is to the south, straddling the intersection of Monroe Street and San Pablo Avenue, and has not been farmed since WWII.” It also “categorically” denies the allegations that genetically modified crops are being used on the site.

Here’s the full text of the open letter: 

Dear Neighbors,

It is apparent that the occupation protest currently unfolding on the Gill Tract adjacent to the University Village has created some degree of confusion and concern about future plans and present facts. So, in the same spirit of collaboration and constructive dialogue that has characterized our relationship with the Albany community for many years, we want to provide you with some essential information about how the land is currently being used, plans for the future and the process we have been engaged in with the City of Albany and its residents since 2007.

  • The agricultural fields on the Gill Tract that are now being occupied are not the site of a proposed assisted living center for senior citizens and a grocery store. The proposed development parcel is to the south, straddling the intersection of Monroe Street and San Pablo Avenue, and has not been farmed since WWII.
  • The existing agricultural fields on the Gill Tract are currently, and for the foreseeable future, being used as an open-air laboratory by the students and faculty of our College of Natural Resources for agricultural research. Their work encompasses basic plant biology, alternative cropping systems, plant-insect interactions and tree pests and pathogens. These endeavors are part of the larger quest to provide a hungry planet with more abundant food, and will be impeded if the protest continues. And, they are categorically not growing genetically modified crops. We have an obligation to support their education and research, and an obligation to the American taxpayers who are funding these federally funded projects.
  • The university has been actively participating in a collaborative, five-year long community engagement process about our proposed development project with hundreds of hours of meetings, hearings and dialogue. We have a great deal of respect for all those who have been involved and regret that “Occupy the Farm” appears to have little regard for the process or the people who have participated in it.
  • We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights. By their logic they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it.
  • We remain committed to moving forward, together with the Albany City Council and Planning Commission, with the commercial development of the parcel straddling the intersection of Monroe Street and San Pablo Avenue, where WWII barracks stood until recently. Our request to postpone the Planning Commission meeting was born in part of our sensitivity to the needs and interests of community members, many of whom are studying the details of the project for the first time as the result of media interest in the protest.
  • The 2004 University Village Master Plan describes a proposal to eventually convert the 10-plus acre agricultural research parcel between Marin Avenue and Village Creek  to open and recreational space for the community. As of now research projects are continuing and the university has not taken any steps to implement the Master Plan on the parcel. We have welcomed community workshops to explore the future use of this land and we continue to be open to further discussions with the community about implementation of the Master Plan on this portion of the property.
  • We are passionate advocates of metropolitan agriculture projects that are well planned, sustainable and considerate of all members of our community. Representatives of the university are more than willing to meet with any interested community members to discuss proposals for metropolitan, sustainable agriculture.
  • The university will continue the dialogue and discussions with the protesters as we seek a peaceful resolution. However, our researchers need to begin planting in the very near future and we cannot allow their work to be impeded. For that reason we are calling on the occupiers to dismantle their encampment immediately and establish a representative group to meet with UC Berkeley representatives to discuss opportunities for a metropolitan agriculture program affiliated with the campus.

If you are interested in additional, detailed information here is a list of useful web sites:

The 2004 Master Plan

A university FAQ on the proposed mixed-use commercial development

City of Albany “mixed use retail” website

City of Albany website on the Gill Tract

Together with Albany’s residents and elected officials, we have come a long way. Our collaborative efforts have produced a plan which we believe addresses significant community needs for open and recreational space, housing for senior citizens and a quality grocery store in an area that has been under-served to date. It should also be noted that revenue from the commercial development will be directed to lowering rent paid by low-income Berkeley students and their families living in Albany Village, while the city will benefit from the jobs created and additional tax revenue. These are just some of the reasons we believe that our combined planning process has produced the quintessential “win-win” proposal worthy of support.


George Breslauer, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost

John Wilton, Vice Chancellor, Administration and Finance

Continuing coverage of the Gill Tract protest can be found on Albany Patch.

UC Berkeley calls for peaceful end to Occupy the Farm [04.23.12]

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  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Take it back? so the protesters owned it before? No i didn’t think so! get a job and get a life!

  • Andrew

    “We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights. By their logic they should be able to seize what they want…”

    Exactly. If they want a farm then BUY a farm!

  • The Sharkey

    Indeed. If the protesters/community think a farm is viable/necessary in that area then they should start a fundraising campaign to buy the property from the University. Set up a Kickstarter campaign, solicit donations from corporations, ask the State/Federal government for grant money.

    The use of force by the protesters to try and compel other people into doing what they want is deplorable.

  • The Sharkey

    Interesting! Thanks for publishing this. It clears up a lot of questions.
    It looks like a lot of people on all sides were very ill-informed about what the University plans to do with that land.

    Now that it’s apparent that the development the protesters took over the land to try to stop isn’t happening in the area they’ve taken over, will they peacefully leave?

  • Bruce Love

    UC is not being particularly straightforward.

    Briefly, UC has a published master plan for the whole village, including the Gill Tract.   In this plan, agricultural use (and much agricultural potential) of the tract will be destroyed.   This is their self-published plan.  They do not dispute this.

    Part of the plan turns some of the same village into mixed-use commercial.

    One such mixed-use chunk basically abuts the tract to the south.   It is this chunk of land where the proposed project will be built.   An EIR was performed for this project.

    Activists argued that the project would have impact on the adjacent tract and that, anyway, the first-step project on just that one chunk ought not be considered piecemeal, separately from the master plan.

    In the draft response to these comments, UC argues that (a) the farmland is not exceptional so it doesn’t trivially force them to consider it in an EIR;  (b) that this first-step project doesn’t specifically touch that land anyway, (c)  that there’s plenty of time in the future to change the master plan, and also that (d) it is unrealistic to imagine productive farming there because the master plan says otherwise.

    You might notice that (c) and (d) contradict one another but….  nevermind …  here we are.

    So when UC says that the new first-step structures won’t sit atop Gill Tract that’s true — but it’s also not what the protest is about.    UC should and I think does know that.   They are misleading the public on purpose.

    Also for Lance:  in what way is the Occupy the Farm protest “self-styled”?   Do you mean that it is not really a protest, it only calls itself one?

  • Andrew

    On Albany’s maps referred to through the links above is says clear as day Urban Farm.  So I’m confused… the protesters say they want an urban farm, and according to Albany’s plans there is to be an urban farm. Can someone please explain this disconnect or explain what “urban farm” actually means on those maps if it does not mean what we think of as a farm?

  • Bruce Love

    The Albany maps show the Gill Tract cut up, developed on, with a much, much smaller remaining bit of farm land.

    The UC master plan shows a complete elimination of ag use.

  • Mike

    If the occupy the farm protesters are serious about rehabilitating agricultural land for food production then might I recommend they instead consider the land adjacent to coyote hills regional park:,+fremont+ca&hl=en&gl=us&ie=UTF8&ll=37.564574,-122.072321&spn=0.000009,0.000011&t=h&z=17&vpsrc=0

  • Guest

    Urban farm = raised beds with vegetables that no one particularly likes, but are hard to kill.  In other words, zucchini.

    Urban farm (protester version) = neglected raised beds with zucchini, an unattractive but edifying mural or two, and, after about six months, discarded syringes all over the place.

  • Mike

    I remembered the name of the property, Patterson Ranch. There’s been a lot of history of the city of Fremont wanting to develop the land.

  • Bruce Love

    Here is an open letter from the protesters:

    April 26, 2012

    The coalition of local residents, farmers, students, and activists occupying the Gill Tract is currently in direct discussion with UC Berkeley Gill Tract researchers, contrary to claims put forth in the UC’s latest public statement. The UCB administration has not taken part in conversations between Occupy the Farm and researchers.

    The UC has consistently acted in bad faith, disregarding community input. For decades, students, faculty, and local residents have tried to engage the UC in dialogue, articulating their desire to transform the Gill Tract into a center for sustainable urban agriculture.

    Instead, the UC transferred administration of the Gill Tract from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, the arm of the university responsible for managing development. The UC Village Master Plan would replace the current agricultural land with ambiguously-termed commercial, recreational, and “open” space. Farmland is for farming, and we cannot allow the UC to destroy one of the best resources for urban agriculture in the Bay Area.

    Major Community Events Planned for Weekend

    From 10 AM to sundown on Saturday and Sunday, April 28th and 29th, Occupy the Farm will host a weekend of workshops, farming and family fun! Events will including a special teach-in by Dr. Miguel Altieri, who has been conducting agroecological research at the Gill Tract since 1981. The workshop will begin at 12pm on Saturday, and Dr. Altieri will field questions from the media at 1pm.

    Below is a full list of events to occur at the farm throughout the weekend.

    The list of events and other information can be found on the web site:

  • Bruce Love

     I’m sorry, I guess I should have said “here is a self-styled open letter from the protesters”.

  • The Sharkey

    Or, perhaps, “here is a press release from a group of people who have taken over property by force and are illegally squatting rather than attempting to raise funds to get what they want in a legal manner.”

    The weekend events sound fun, and I think the goal of an urban agriculture center is a good one, but I refuse to participate in anything that might be seen as condoning this activity.

  • Haselstein

    I see no relationship between this and the Occupy Movement. This is like People’s Park. If they want to help farmers, I suggest they join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. 

  • Bea

    thanks bruce love. i am still confused. the uc master plan says ‘traffic will not be drawn deep into the ucvillage.
    Wait! i am still confused. 12-15,000 vehicle trips, over 300 parking spots, diesel delivery trucks, ambulances….
    i will reread uc’s letter again to allay my confusion. i thought this was a public university. sorry i am utterly confused. i wonder if Gandhi asked for permission. 

  • Bruce Love

    I see no relationship between this and the Occupy Movement. This is like
    People’s Park. If they want to help farmers, I suggest they join the
    Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

    They want to help people  (ourselves, our children, our grandchildren)  not starve.     Urban farming is an important part of how that can happen.

    Our food supply, even here in the U.S., even here in Berkeley, is in grave danger.   One hardly knows where to begin but we face problems of over-reliance on petro-chemicals in agriculture, poor soil management practices in industrial farming, over-population, industrial crop yield reductions due to climate change, systems fragility due to industrial monocultures, malnutrition and hunger as a result of extreme divergence in wealth distribution, collapsing oceanic ecosystems and over-fishing, over-reliance on meat in our diet, and so on, and on.    Our food supply chains rely on transporting massive quantities of goods over long distances over an increasingly frail, failing infrastructure, using economic inputs whose price volatility is headed up and up with no sign of calming back down soon.  Resource wars are beginning to emerge and I don’t know any analyst who has looked at the problem who doesn’t expect them to become much, much worse.    We are headed towards what some of the kids these days call a “grim meathook future” (thanks, jwz).

    Urban agriculture as the norm is, at least many of us are thinking, part of the solution.

    The wealth of literature — scientific, practical, activist, etc. — about urban agriculture (including topics like permaculture) is vast and rapidly growing.   That’s why I’m not even going to try to give just a few “key links” in this comment: there’s simply too much out there, just look around.

    Locally, some of these topics have shown up in “pop culture” as the farm related work of Novella Carpenter, the local transition town group Berkeleyside reported on, and so forth.  (Those two examples I mention because they’ve come up here on Berkeleyside.)

  • Bruce Love

    On Civil Disobedience:

    Several commentators – and UC itself – have focused on property rights.   The University administration says it does not appreciate the protesters “approach” to property rights.    In the eyes of some, that is simply the most important thing: that the protesters are using UC land without authorization from the UC administration itself.

    Oakland, in recent years, has become something of a legislative leader.   They have begun liberalizing the regulation of urban farming more aggressively that some other allegedly progressive cities.

    And, in fact, in recent years urban farming has really expanded.  And what do you know, it is helping people to improve their food security and diet.  It’s a great movement.

    Oakland has been aggressively taking a lead here in part because it faced a problem:  it became famous as the hometown of Novella Carpenter’s farming, which started off, and came to national attention, as an illegal squat.

  • Haselstein

    You know, you always seem kind of patronizing. This is Berkeley, so I think you can safely assume that many of us are informed, if not well informed. 

  • Dicon108

    In the true AMERICAN way take what you want.  Being a Native American, ‘GET OFF MY LAND, IT’S NOT YOURS’.
    How is this any different from a thug breaking into your house and taking what they want.

  • Andrew

    While it may sound nice that the Occupy Gill Tract folks want to “take back” the tract, the simple and clear fact is that they are seixng someone else’s private property, regardless of how they think it should be used. Is seizure of privtae property in America OK? If so, where does it end? I hesiate to ponder.

    My request for the farm occupiers is this: find a farm to purchase and occupy. That is legal and no one will harass you. You OWN the land and can do what you want. Then, grow the food and feed the homeless and the Berkeley public school kids, who’s farrms will soon by shut down. Teach them how to fish. Don’t teach them how to SEIZE property, which is what a governemnt would do. Not nice, hard working, honest people. 

    Simply walking into someone else’s house, no matter who they are, and taking over is not legitimate. 

    Do the right thing. Offer to buy the property. Do you hear me now?

  • Anonymous

    This is *public* property — it is formally “owned” by the University of California, which is a branch of the state government, which derives its power and sovereignty from you, me, and all the other Citizens of the state. As evidence of it being public property, no property taxes are paid for the area that the demonstrators are using.

    Let’s not use this “private property” language when we are talking about public spaces. You might argue that they didn’t go through all the proper channels for public discussion, but that is in fact a part of what they are protesting. It is hard to see how the public can assert its sovereign rights when it comes to property administered by UC. 

  • EarlyMorningCoffee

     It’s Cal’s land, they own it, they are using it right now for something (a field of beans is growing). I was there yesterday to check it out, and everyone I spoke with was a student at Cal. The whole endeavor will probably implode over summer break. That’s a shame, because the group I saw yesterday seemed very organized and sharp.  Nothing like the park squatters of last year.

  • Bruce Love

    That’s a shame, because the group I saw yesterday seemed very organized
    and sharp.  Nothing like the park squatters of last year.

    “Occupy” is a family of tactics and a broad social network, not a specific movement. Not everyone who considers themselves “part of the movement” would agree with me on that — most would probably not.  Nevertheless…

    In this view, last year’s camps can be regarded as a kind of extended training exercise, and an empirical exploration of (a) the state’s capabilities and inclinations (b) the effects and effectiveness of various self-governance tactics.  A (much) larger number of people now have a shared vocabulary for planning actions.   There is more shared knowledge about what does and doesn’t work.   There are now expanded networks along which people can ask for help, exchange ideas and experience reports, spread news, and so forth.

  • Guest

    very similar to american foreign policy in the middle east – might makes right

  • Guest

    do you think that means anyone is free to go anywhere they want on any public university property whenever they want?

  • deetz100

    I am simply amazed that not one person has mentioned that the field being used is “occupied” already, by scientist doing basic and applied research on plant biology.  Now they can’t do that work.  The activists, in their ideological zeal, have cause real harm to a group of people that are working for the common good.  And no, the corn their was not genetically modified, and no, the work their was not funded by big corporations, and no the research was not to make better corn for Monsanto.  It is publicly funded research on basic questions concerning gene regulation and sustainable agriculture.  The research being done there is important, and the researchers and their students, who have been actually investing time and energy for decades, actually working this land, were totally ignored by these “farmers” as they planned their occupation.   As a local resident it is profoundly frustrating to watch the occupiers blithely dismiss our concerns and act as if they have committed a victimless crime.  And, from the media (with some notable exceptions) portray it all as some harmless prank, or heartfelt statement.  It would have been nice to have been warned, but they say they couldn’t “for reasons of operational security”, so we get to be collateral damage in their war with U.C.  Fortunately, they have begun a process to win “the hearts and minds” of the locals, who have been informed that it’s for our own good.  Does this all remind you of anything?  Good intentions combined with bad intelligence and poor tactics leads to big problems.  I’m hoping the occupiers are realizing that now.

  • Bruce Love

    Deetz100, it is UC’s stated intention (according to their site master plan) to terminate the research uses you are mentioning. 

  • Biker 94703

     Considering the size of the check I recent wrote to the State, to some degree yes.

  • deetz100

    Yes, eventually.  But as I’m sure you know these things can drag out forever (check the date on the master plan).  The problem is that these folks jumped in and directly blocked ongoing work at exactly the wrong time (just before planting) without consoling the community and without considering the consequences of their actions for the people that were already there.  If they had bothered to do a little research on what was actually being done in that field, rather than what they imagined was being done based on ideology and ignorance, they could have avoided what I think will end up being a real blow to their movement.  Trivializing the damage they have done will just make things worse for them, since your moral position is always weakened when you have to start talking about acceptable collateral damage.

  • Bruce Love

     My understanding is that what is at risk with this one planting is a particular federal grant — at least that’s how the Patch article reads.   Do you happen to have a handy link to the grant proposal?  Or to information about about the budget implications for that researcher and any employees?

    Also, I gather that you’re affiliated and that you are affiliated with the maize research in particular (e.g., from your use of “we”).   Are you the P.I.?  or….?   Have you been in space wars at Cal before?   I ask because this bit doesn’t sound like something I’d count on, if I were you:   “But as I’m sure you know these things can drag out forever (check the date on the master plan).”   The date of the master plan is less significant than the milestone of breaking ground and lining up developers.

    Anyway, the Patch article said something about June 1 for planting.   Talk of “acceptable collateral damage” is at least slightly premature.

  • deetz100

    It’s probably best just to refer you to Albany Patch, where these issues have been covered extensively

  • Bruce Love

     You are referring me to coverage which I myself cited.  I asked you some specific questions not answered by that coverage:

    1) What is your affiliation with Cal and with the maize research?

    2) Where can we find the grant proposal(s?) whose projects (hence funds) are jeopardized?  (I want to better understand what is scientifically at risk.)

    3) What is the impact on the P.I. and employees if these funds are lost?  (I want to better understand what is financially at risk.)

  • deetz100

    1) none of your business
    2 and 3.  Why don’t you ask the researchers directly. They are: Miguel Altieri, Sarah Hake, Damon Lisch and Frank Harmon.  Google any one of them and you can find out exactly what they do an how they are funded, or you can email them directly.

  • Bruce Love

      And no, the corn their was not genetically modified, and no, the work
    their was not funded by big corporations, and no the research was not to
    make better corn for Monsanto.  It is publicly funded research on basic
    questions concerning gene regulation and sustainable agriculture.

    That seems literally true and yet oddly misleading to me.

    No, the mutant corn isn’t GMO — but the research studies mutants to identify genes and pathways  useful to synthetic biologists who are trying to genetically engineer new crops.

    Looking for example at the Hake Lab, the particular genes and pathways that are currently under study seem to coincide nicely with what would be needed by way of background research to create GMO grass crops for biofuels.   Indeed, that seems the intent:

    A few years back the Hake Lab received a $793,000 grant from the DOE precisely to do this research aimed at biofuel production. 

    Incidentally, the research complements some of the DOE / BP funded work.  Keasling working on GMO microbes to efficiently break down tough fibers in plants;  Hake helping engineer GMO crops with less of the hard to break down fibers.

    The research may or may not be a good idea but in any event the way the researchers are taking their case to the public seems disingenuous for not being forthright.

  • Msmattiem

    Thanks for such a succinct breakdown of the possible uses of the research being done at the Gill tract. It’s obvious that UC Berkeley has plans other than farm research for the field, even though it got the property years ago under the auspice of using it for agricultural pursuits. I’m still trying to understand how the University/Albany can develop the adjacent property . Can UC sell the buildings on it’s campus for private development? How do non-profits, whose money comes from tax payers, become commercial, for profit enterprises? For those of us who live here in the community, it’s not such a simple thing. We’ve been told many times by our government that research being done was benign, when in fact it wasn’t. Like radioactive materials, that were stored at the Gill tract from 1998 – to 1997. ..Round-up is used on the field every year, even though many scientists don’t believe the inert chemicals are safe…A learning Farm for our community would be a great way to keep the land for everyone. We should reimburse UC what they paid for it – or should I say what we paid for it as tax payers…I’m sorry that the researchers feel afraid for their jobs…Unfortunately many of us in this economy are finding this to be our fate…As for the methods – well my Grandfather got his entire 1,300 acres under the Homestead Act, go figure….

  • Msmattiem

     Oops I meant from 1988 to 1997…(storing radioactive materials)

  • Bruce Love

    An open letter published by the Occupy the Farm folks, in response to the UC letter:

    As you read this letter, East Bay families and farmers continue to seed, weed, and water at Occupy The Farm. Public events over this weekend have included workshops by members of the community and the opening of the “Ladybug Patch” children’s area. For most Albany residents this is the first time they have ever been invited onto, or set foot upon this land.

    We are writing you to correct the misinformation circulated by the University Administration in their recent open letter. [….]

  • Bruce Love

     deetz100 writes:

    And no, the corn their was not genetically modified, and no, the work
    their was not funded by big corporations, and no the research was not to
    make better corn for Monsanto

    Here is a page describing Sarah Hake’s project sponsored by the USDA:

    The project’s annual report for 2011 is here:

    The basic idea of the described research:

    1. Start with some well-known, inbred corn variants.

    2. Chemically cause random genetic mutations to these.  Plant them and see what comes up.   See how it differs from the well-known variety.

    3. Identify new mutants that lose or gain some functionality of interest.   In this case, they concentrate on mutations that effect the leaves of the maize.

    4. Isolate which mutated genes are responsible for the change in leaf function.

    5. Genetically engineer those genes into other strains, grow them, and try to find out if the mutant genes work similarly in the new plant.   It’s particularly interesting if this can be done among related species.   For example, can a mutant gene from corn be transferred to switchgrass and, once there, does it have a similar effect on the switch grass leaves?

    In the abstract this is one way to try to understand how the genes in a seed direct the growth of the organism.   For example, cells near the base of a leaf where it attaches to the stem develop one way, but cells near the tip of a leaf develop a different way.   Which do the plants genes those two different kinds of cells?  Which genes are involved?

    This research isn’t *that* abstract, though.   It goes on like this:

    Even if we don’t perfectly understand *how* the mutant gene does what it does, we can still take that gene stick it in some other strain, creating a new GMO crop based on our random mutation.

    Will the new crop have the same properties as the original mutant?  That could be industrially useful!

    The researchers indicate in their 2011 annual report that they have done exactly that with one gene, and have their eye on a second mutant gene with GMO potential.

    For one thing they’ve created a GMO switchgrass that seems to have a higher starch content than wild varieties.   This may make the GMO grass a better “feedstock” for industrial conversion biofuel (probably with the help of GMO bacteria). [*]

    For another thing, they’ve found a mutation that causes there to be more sugar in the cell walls of maize plants (they call this mutation “candy leaf-1”).   Maize (or other grasses) genetically engineered to include this new mutation might one day also make better “feedstock” for industrial conversion to biofuel (probably with the help of GMO bacteria).

    This so-called “basic research” is squarely aimed at big corporate interests (big energy companies, no less).   It is squarely aimed spreading GMO crops.

    So now here is Lisch saying the same kind of thing deetz100 is:

    “Basic research using corn as a model is different than making GMO corn to improve profits for Monsanto.”

    No it’s not making better corn for Monsanto.   Other corporations, especially big energy, might profit from this taxpayer investment instead.   And it might be GMO switchgrass, not corn.

  • The Sharkey

    “If, perhaps, maybe.”

  • Bruce Love

    I wrote:

    No, the mutant corn isn’t GMO

    I’ve had a chance to read the USDA’s description on record of Hake’s current research and her 2011 annual report on that research.

    As it turns out the mutants they are working with are not engineered but they are artificially created mutants.   They begin with inbred strains (well-known strains).   They induce random mutations through a chemical process.  Then they look among these artificially modified (but not “engineered”) phenotypes for changes to leaf structure — and study those and experiment with engineering the same mutation into other plants.

    For example, if a mutant corn is created that has an unusually large amount of starch in the leaves, somehow related to the plant never flowering — they can (and have) transferred the mutant gene to switchgrass, engineering a strain of switchgrass that doesn’t flower and has a lot of starch in the leaves.   This is considered a good outcome in that it may lead to improved GMO feedstocks for industrial conversion to biofuels, presumably using GMO bacteria.

  • The Sharkey

    If it wasn’t for genetic engineering, we wouldn’t have corn at all.

  • Bruce Love

    If it wasn’t for genetic engineering, we wouldn’t have corn at all.

    Our modern food crops until late in the 20th century emerged by selective breeding which is very different from genetic engineering.

    Selective breeding, as the name suggests, crosses variants and selects the most preferred offspring for further breeding.    It’s an epochs-old way that life evolves.   We’ve bred some “captive species” like our domestic animals and our domestic crops.   In some sense, we ourselves are just as much a “captive species”, bred by a coalition of bacteria species such as those that live in our gut.

    An important check on selective breeding is that not all crosses are viable.   I can not pollinate a rose with corn pollen, for example.

    Genetic engineering, in this context, refers to a very different way of creating new genotypes:  various means of mechanically introducing new genes or removing old ones.  This results in genetic combinations far, far beyond the reach of selective breeding.    GMO tricks largely bypasses the evolved barriers that prevent, for example, rose / corn breeding. 

    It’s worth considering the risks of these two separate ways of creating new genotypes independently.

  • The Sharkey

    Our modern food crops until late in the 20th century emerged by selective breeding which is very different from genetic engineering.

    No, not really. The way in which the genes were manipulated was different, but it’s still gene manipulation.

  • Bruce Love

    Sharkey, comparing millenia old practices of selective breeding with modern genetic engineering you wrote, echoing some of the great propagandists from the synthetic biology industry:

    No, not really. The way in which the genes were
    manipulated was different, but it’s still gene

    Traditional selective breeding is not the manipulation of genes at all:  it’s the manipulation of heritable phenotypical traits through modulation of sexual reproduction.   It works by taking some population of subject organisms and exerting some control over who mates with whom in that population.   The genetic combinations that can be created in this way are limited mainly by the boundaries of species — the limits of heritable reproductive compatibility.   There are partial exceptions that go slightly further than intra-species breeding, such as mules.

    It so happens that the ordinary genetics of sexual reproduction help to explain some of how selective breeding works (e.g., Mendel).   In a vacuous sense this is “genetic manipulation” — the same way its “genetic manipulation” to have sex on Spring Break, or brush your teeth, or throw an apple core at the tree line in your back yard.  The salient point here is that evolution has given us certain barriers to sexual genetic recombination (species boundaries) — and selective breeding can not escape far past those evolved limitations.   To call this “genetic manipulation” to grossly exaggerate.

    In contrast, genetic engineering is the direct manipulation of genotypes — usually without regard to natural limits on which genetic combinations can be achieved by sexual reproduction.    Genetic engineering is interesting technology precisely because it can achieve genotypes that can not possibly be achieved via selective breeding.

    For example, and in terms of phenotypes:  With selective breeding we can make things as perverse as dog pure breeds that reliably suffer from congenital defects, and mules that can’t reproduce.   With genetic engineering, we can make a dog that glows in the dark or a goat that lactates pharmaceuticals.

    Once one recognizes that qualitative difference it becomes possible (and obvious) to consider the risks of genetic engineering and those of selective breeding separately.   That is why propagandists who want to steer people away from examining the risks of genetic engineering so often lie, saying that there is no essential difference between selective breeding and genetic engineering.

  • The Sharkey

    The genetic combinations that can be created in this way are limited mainly by the boundaries of species — the limits of heritable reproductive compatibility.

    Which, actually, are still genetic changes. Controlling those changes instead of letting them happen by chance is manipulation. Ergo, selective breeding is a form of genetic manipulation (albeit a simplified one).

    The more you know.™

  • The comments of “well it’s university land, so it’s public” baffle me. It reminds me
    of the Berkeleysider who commented to me that the yarn bombings at the library were legit because the library is public property since it is paid for by our taxes. Does that mean I can take books home and deface them? Does it mean I can just keep them forever without paying fines?
    The same lack of logic is at play here — it is NOT public property like a park would be. And even parks have curfews and rules about camping overnight. Just because something is “public” does not mean you can live there. And in this case, it is owned by the university – which does not make it public property.

  • The Sharkey

    Just because something is “public” does not mean you can live there.

    While this might seem obvious to you or I, there is a small minority of extremely vocal Berkeley residents who actually disagree with this basic, common-sense statement.