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Biology Prof. Resigns Over Gvt. Use of Plant Research

StoryMay 06, 2005
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We speak Dr. Martha Crouch, a former biology professor at the University of Indiana. She ran a lab dedicated to cutting edge plant research but decided to end her career when she found out that biotechnology companies were co-opting her research for profit. [includes rush transcript]

We are broadcasting from Bloomington Indiana on our Unembed the Media Tour. We are joined in the studio this morning by Dr. Martha Crouch. Dr Crouch used to be a biology professor at the University of Indiana. She was once a pioneering biotechnologist who studied her entire life to reach the top of her profession. She earned a Ph.D. in developmental biology at Yale before going to Indiana University, to teach and run a lab dedicated to cutting edge plant research. But she decided to end her research career when she found out that biotechnology companies were co-opting her research for profit.

  • Marti Crouch, former professor of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Dr. Martha Crouch. She used to be a biology professor here at the University of Indiana, was reaching the top of her profession. She earned a Ph.D. in Developmental Science. She taught here at the Indiana University, ran a lab dedicated to cutting- edge plant research, but she decided to end her research career when she found out that biotechnology companies were taking her research, using it for profit. Dr. Marti Crouch with us, former Professor of Biology here at Indiana University. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, first tell us very quickly what happened to you? This was years ago. When was it?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: This was 15 years ago, about 1990, and it was at the very beginning of genetic engineering in agriculture. You know, now probably in Indiana, 75% of the crops grown are genetically engineered, but at the time there wasn’t anything in the field. I could see the writing on the wall, though, from the consulting that I was doing that genetic engineering was going to promote industrial agriculture. And I feel industrial agriculture is one of the major reasons that the environment is in the sad shape it is today. So, I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue that kind of research.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, specifically, you were doing work on palm trees?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: I was doing work on canola. You’re probably familiar with canola oil. And the work that we were doing was basic research. We didn’t have any particular application in mind, but we were doing some consulting with Unilever in Great Britain, and they were using oil palm plantations around the world to make edible oil. They used some of our research to make the trees more genetically uniform so that they could grow larger plantations, and in the process, they cut down a lot of rain forests, kicked Indians off their land, polluted the rivers with the waste products of the processing of the oil. I was horrified by that because my own allegiance is with the small farmers and with the rain forests, and the idea that the kind of knowledge we were generating about how genes work was primarily being used to promote that kind of destruction, really sent me back to the basics of why research is funded.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Well, I shut down my lab. And I think saying—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a professor here.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: I was a professor here.

AMY GOODMAN: You had the cover story of which magazine, your research?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Well, Plant Cell, which at the time was the major research journal for my field. I had had the cover story the month before. So I was involved in this research, and—

AMY GOODMAN: You were a rising star.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: I guess I was at the time, and—

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you mean to say you just shut down your lab?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Well, I asked my students to finish their projects, and I didn’t accept any more grant money and announced through writing a sort of a manifesto to the Plant Cell, where I had had the article, that I wanted people in biology to think about what their work was being used for. And not to have on blinders and just think that somehow the government was giving them money to do research just because it was fun. That money is given so that research will lead to innovation in industry and military applications, and if it doesn’t lead to that kind of innovation, then the money dries up. So, people needed to be comfortable with what industry and the military were doing with their research, and in my experience, we weren’t even thinking about that. So, I put out a challenge. I was very visible about it. I went around and debated and talked, and then went into teaching for the next ten years, particularly about the food system and finally quit at the university about five years ago, to pursue interests in sustainable agriculture.

AMY GOODMAN: The governor has signed off on legislation that prevents local communities, I suppose, like the Bloomington City Council from doing exactly what?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Well, biotechnology is one of those things that the more the citizens know about it, the less they like it. So, as people become educated, as to what is actually growing in the fields around them and what some of the risks are. For example, that there are crops that are being engineered to make pharmaceuticals like vaccines or industrial chemicals: plastics, precursors, and so forth, that are being tested in their communities but they don’t know where the tests are. Local communities in California and Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, are starting to enact legislation saying, we want to have a genetically-engineered free zone around our community until we know more about it, so our conventional farmers don’t have problems with contamination, that we don’t feel that the federal government is doing an adequate job of protecting our health. Now, that has traditionally been something local communities can do. You know, the town meeting sort of local protection of health and welfare. Over the years, the agriculture industry has slipped in legislation to limit the right of local communities to protect themselves against technologies and the first was pesticides. I don’t know if you know that in most states, local communities can not ban pesticides or limit their use. Other, you know, in more strict ways than the State. So, there’s precedent for this. The libel laws against disparaging vegetables or, you know, what got Oprah in trouble with, with hamburger.

AMY GOODMAN: The vegetable disparagement laws.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: The vegetable disparagement laws.

AMY GOODMAN: You cannot diss a broccoli.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: That’s right. Although we know certain people have. So, these laws have been on the books for other things. Now they’re saying that local communities in certain states, Indiana one of them — I think there are nine other states so far, many more proposing this legislation — cannot ban or regulate what kinds of seeds are grown in their local jurisdiction. I feel this is a terrible assault on local democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Marti Crouch, former Professor of Biology here at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. We’re going to break, come back to her. I want to find out about this Superweed that is taking over Indiana, what it has to do with Monsanto and Roundup pesticides.


AMY GOODMAN: Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Julia Ward Howe. In a few minutes, we’re going to find out about what this song has to do with Mother’s Day, and how a woman who wrote this song was trying to create a day for peace. But first, we’re going to finish up with Dr. Marti Crouch, former Professor of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. This is Democracy Now! I am Amy Goodman and we are broadcasting from Indiana University in Bloomington. Dr. Marti Crouch, talk about this superweed that’s taking over Indiana.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Yeah. There’s a headline here, "Monsanto’s G.E. Crop Spawns Superweeds Across Indiana." This is interesting because when genetically-engineered crops were first developed, there was a lot of hype about how they were going to reduce the use of pesticides, that we were going to be able to get rid of weeds with safe chemicals, that sort of a thing. And one of the first crops that was genetically engineered was Roundup Ready. Now Roundup is glyphosate, one of the most common herbicides, weed killers in the world. And it was patented to Monsanto, about to come off patent, so they were going to start losing their income stream from that. And so, they genetically engineered a series of crops to be able to withstand Roundup. They called them Roundup Ready, so that you could spray the weed killer over them, they would survive, the weeds would die. And the idea was that you’d be able to use less weed killer, that Roundup was less toxic than some of the other ones, and that it would simplify weed management.

Well, in Indiana, about 5 million acres are now cultivated in Roundup Ready soybeans; about 90% of the soybean crop. And so, a quarter of our land area in Indiana, and this is typical throughout the soybean-growing regions, is sprayed with Roundup herbicide, one, two, three times during a season. Naturally, weeds, being smarter than people, are learning how to become resistant to the Roundup, as predicted. And this year, in the last couple of years, there’s a new weed in Indiana called Mare’s Tail. It’s actually a native plant that has learned how to grow under these conditions, has become resistant, and is moving very rapidly across the State. Which means that the Roundup Ready approach doesn’t work anymore, unless you mix in different herbicides. So, now they’re recommending that farmers, whenever they see this weed, and even if they don’t, start mixing the Roundup with 2,4-D, which is an old herbicide that has a lot of evidence now that it’s linked to certain cancers, and reproductive problems, a much more dangerous herbicide. So, the — and also because of this, more and more and more of the pesticides are being used, and as genetically-engineered crops have become more popular, pesticide use has increased instead of decreased.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, this issue of using crop plants for drugs?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Yes. This is the thing that I never even thought of 15 years ago when I decided to quit my research and makes me even more confident that I made the right decision, and that is that now people are making drugs, pharmaceuticals, in crops like corn, some are engineered into rice, sugar cane, other food crops. They’re in the testing phase. Only one industrial enzyme is being grown commercially for research purposes, but there are hundreds of tests of these pharmaceuticals. They include birth control agents, vaccines—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait. I don’t understand. So, do the birth control agent. What is happening?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: You take a gene from an organism that makes a protein that can control conception, and you splice that into the DNA of a corn plant, and you ask the corn plant to become a factory to make that birth control agent.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you can have cornfields that sterilize whole communities?

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: You could. Or that make AIDS vaccines, or that make growth hormone, or that make plastic precursors. And the idea is factories are expensive, cornfields are cheap. So you get agriculture to make all of these things that used to be made in pharmaceutical factories or in industrial factories. Now, these are being field-tested around Indiana and around the United States and the world in secret field tests. The locations are not made public. And usually what particular drug or chemical being made is confidential business information. So, you don’t even know what particular chemical—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s proprietary.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: It’s proprietary. And there’s no regulatory agency that has the ability to test for whether this is already contaminating our food. And a lot of people think it probably is.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re making me think of what we just, we’re following the British elections, but those root pullers in Britain, the protesters who go out to these Monsanto fields or other companies that are doing biogenetic fields and they pull the roots as a form of civil disobedience.

DR. MARTHA CROUCH: Yeah, exactly. Now, some states are trying to deal with this. Hawaii, for example, has legislation that’s going through right now to attempt to force the companies to say what they’re growing and where, so that there can be community oversight. But in most other places, like Indiana, we’re getting these laws that say the community cannot protect themselves against this. They’re taking it out of our hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Marti Crouch, I want to thank you very much for alarming us today, former Professor of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She quit her research job, her professorship here at the university, now is more likely to be found out in the Farmer’s Markets of Bloomington.

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