It sounds all subversive and sexy, but just wait until one of these guys releases a mistake that wipes out all tomatoes on the earth.
Bioscience and the New Threat--mediapathic
I’m standing in the basement of a tumbledown house somewhere in the uglier areas of Oakland. Up top, it’s a punk squat. The outside is decrepitly unnoticeable, the inside walls are thick with incomprehensible spraypaint and hand-drawn posters calling for General Strikes. A constantly shifting cast of people of all genders sporting strange haircuts and bad ink drifts endlessly through the space. But down here in the basement, it’s a different world. There’s an array of beige plastic machines, most about the size of a small washing machine, connected with a dense network of cables. There are several computers, one of which appears to be a laptop held together with duct tape. There’s arc lamps lighting a cluster of plants, and you think, ah, here’s something I can understand, but instead of the usual dense forest of marijuana, I’m looking at a tomato literally as big as my head.
A man with a shock of grey hair exploding back from thin framed glasses grins at me. “That could be enough tomato soup to feed a family of six. Hungry?”
“Wiley” is in his 40s, wearing tight jeans and a black denim vest encrusted with patches. He looks like the older version of the sort of guy you’d expect to see flipping tricks on his skateboard with a brown-bagged PBR close at hand. He does not look like the stereotype of a genetic engineer, but that’s what he is. He attended “a prestigious and ultimately futile” academic institution, and was a star student in bioscience. But as he approached graduation, he realized that the only jobs available for someone with his education were doing research for Monsanto or one of the other big agricultural firms, and, he says “that was just morally unsound.” So, three days before graduating, he skipped town and never looked back.
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And this is the dark side of the Johnny movement. These attack crops are specifically designed to produce pollen that, when carried to other plants by insects or wind, cause them to become more susceptible to disease and environmental damage. They specifically target plants grown by big agribusiness. “Every time a corporation tinkers with the genes on a plant, they leave a signature. We look for that signature and use that to trigger our own changes.” Wiley is quick to point out that these “aggressor” plants are only designed to be harmful to agribusiness crops, and are still perfectly safe for human consumption. Monsanto representatives have said that “this kind of tinkering with life done by unsanctioned individuals outside of the rigorous safety precautions of a corporate environment is hazardous beyond measure.” Monsanto also says that attack crops spread by Johnnies cost it 1.3 Billion dollars last year in lost revenue, and that that number is growing.
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