The Cost of Biotech Fever

Martha Crouch became a scientist because she loved nature. Then agribusiness began using her research to destroy the things she loved. When she spoke out, the scientific community made her a pariah.

| Tue Jan. 11, 2000 3:00 AM EST

Martha Crouch, a biology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and once a pioneering biotechnologist, studied her entire life to reach the pinnacle of her profession. She earned a Ph.D. in developmental biology at Yale before landing at Indiana University, where she teaches and once ran a lab dedicated to cutting edge plant research. In 1990, her lab made the cover of The Plant Cell, the leading journal in the field of plant molecular biology. Instead of launching Crouch into professional nirvana, however, the article marked the end of her research career.

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Crouch had tenure and was well-known in her field. But she had awakened one day to the realization that her research was being co-opted by corporations which hoped to apply the science for profit. Further, the manner in which those firms used her discoveries was destroying the natural processes that attracted Crouch to the study of biology in the first place.

One month after she was lauded in The Plant Cell, Crouch wrote an editorial for the journal declaring that she had given up her research because she had decided that it was unethical. The editorial effectively ended Crouch's scientific career.

Crouch had gotten in on the ground floor of plant biotech, when corporations were just starting to become interested in it. In fact, Crouch consulted with a few of the them in the late 1980s, including the giant British multinational Unilever.

But it was in 1989 that Crouch picked up a copy of the New Scientist magazine only to read about Unilever using her tissue culture research to expand its environmentally disastrous palm-tree farming operations in the tropics.

Unilever grew the trees for the oil in their seeds. The oil and seeds are used in snack foods and as industrial lubricants. Unilever had long wanted to expand its palm oil operations, but was frustrated by nature: the trees were too variable in size to be industrialized. Until, that is, Crouch's research showed them the way to begin propagating genetically uniform oil palm trees.

"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.

The biotech method worked, and Unilever's palm-oil business boomed. Unilever started buying out small farmers in places like Malaysia. Its massive palm plantations needed space, meaning thousands of acres of tropical rainforests were cut down, indigenous peoples were displaced, and the nearby waterways were severely polluted by runoff from the palm oil processing factories.

After reading the article, Crouch was crushed to realize that the research she was doing could be applied in such a destructive way.

Her editorial in The Plant Cell 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 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, which 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's world view had changed.

She came to believe, she said, 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 of her former students are working for the biotech industry -- one is at Monsanto and is responsible for helping to commercialize genetically engineered corn and soybeans.

Since Crouch decided in 1990 to halt her research, the department has prohibited her from teaching science majors. For the last 10 years, she has been teaching non-science students about the food chain.

Crouch plans to quit her tenured position at Indiana University at the end of this semester. She is leaving a high-tech university setting and heading back to the local farmers market -- inspecting mushrooms for the City of Bloomington. She may well enjoy the work, but it shows what it can cost to take on the biotechnology industry.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of "Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy."