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Scientists Study Plant Genetics at Land Currently Being Occupied

"It feels very much like it was your backyard and someone came into it and said, 'We're not leaving.'"

The land near San Pablo and Marin avenues was not unused—it was just waiting for spring planting by a group of researchers, several of whom study plant genetics, and Miguel Altieri, who studies what many call sustainable agriculture.

The five scientists come from both the University of California at Berkeley and the Plant Gene Expression Center in the on Buchanan Street.

Berkeley Professor Altieri is out of the country on research, and couldn’t be reached for an interview. His website describes his work as agroecology: using modern ecological research methods to study traditional farming to design sustainable farming systems.

A video on YouTube, “Why is agroecology the solution to hunger and food scarcity?” captures the Altieri’s message: “We know one thing for sure – industrial agriculture already failed to feed the world. We have 1 billion people that are starving. In addition to that, the ecological costs of industrial agriculture are huge,” he says.

Altieri group’s research, according to his website, “provides the basic ecological principles for how to study, design and manage sustainable agroecosystems.”

At the Gill Tract, Altieri’s group has been studying disease in dry-farmed tomatoes, and pest control from intercropping broccoli with other plants.

Altieri’s work is about food stability—one goal of the  Occupy the Farm group. In fact, Anya Kamenskaya of the group, is a former student of Altieri's. She told reporters Monday that the group has not touched Altieri’s cover crop of fava beans.

The land the group is is the surrounding cornfield, because, Kamenskaya said, the benefits of corn research—which does not result in an edible crop—don’t go directly to the community, the way food could. She said this research could be done elsewhere.

RESEARCHER: "PURE SCIENCE" CONTRIBUTES, TOO

is one of four scientists who studies maize (corn) at the Gill Tract. Although her genetic research is pure science, not applied like Altieri’s, she said she feels that it, too, contributes to food stability.

“If we understand the basic process of the plant biology, we’re in a better place to breed for crops that can withstand changing climates, and that will provide food security,” Hake said.

Hake said maize is used for research for several reasons. The chromosomes are large, and more easily seen. Also, the male and female flowers are separated, so it’s easy to crossbreed. And finally, there are huge variations in maize.

Hake, who has been working at the Gill Tract site for 30 years, explained that the researchers’ work is not to create new products (such as in genetic engineering). “We’re trying to understand basic processes in plant biology.”

The other researchers who share maize acreage with Hake are Zac Cande who studies meiosis, Frank Harmon, who is studying the circadian rhythms of plants, and , studies the .

Asked whether the corn grown for research could be eaten, Hake said no, for several reasons. First, the kernels (seeds) must be saved for replanting. (Genetics studies are based on following generations of a species.) And second, the corn—not sweet corn, but the hard type ground for cornmeal—is of inferior eating quality to what a farmer would raise.

For now, the occupiers are not in the way of her research, she said. Her corn is planted in June. Normally the winter weeds would be mowed down soon and the field prepared in May, she said.

“If these people mow down all the weeds and till it, maybe they’ll get it ready for us,” Hake said cheerfully.

Lisch, on the other hand, was not so optimistic.

“All of us do basic research that is paid for by federal research grants. We don't grow GMOs at Gill, and we really don't appreciate our planting season being threatened because they want to make a political point.”

AN OPEN DIALOGUE WITH ACTIVISTS

Lisch attended a community meeting Monday night with Gill Tract activists, where he shared concerns about his upcoming planting season. He said he's for about 20 years, planting one seed at a time, weeding by hand and covering the crop carefully to protect it from crows and deer. Then comes the process of watching the corn grow and crossing it to study the outcome.

"It's not our land, but it feels very much like it was your backyard and someone came into it and said, 'We're not leaving,'" he said Monday evening. Lisch, an Albany resident, said he uses about a quarter-acre, or 20 rows, for his genetic research.

A number of activists approached Lisch after he spoke to the group to ask him about his work and his plans, and whether it might be possible to find a common goal. 

"We might just be collateral damage," he said to one of them, in reference to his fellow researchers. "If the field isn't ready by June 1, I can't plant. I have a grant and I may need to tell them I can't plant, so I can't do my research."

Ultimately, he said he appreciated being able to have an open dialogue with the activists, despite their differences.

"They're not bad people," he said. "They're just good people on my land." 

Additional reporting to this story was contributed by Emilie Raguso.

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