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Hip-hop UC professor battles chemical company

Noah2415/FlickrUC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes

Allies of Syngenta, a company that produces a ubiquitous but controversial herbicide, have continued attacks on UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes, a leading critic of the chemical who has fought the company through outrageous e-mails laced with rap lyrics, original rhymes and raunchy put-downs.

Critiques of Hayes' research on the herbicide atrazine have shown up in recent months in the Center for Global Food Issues [PDF], a project of the conservative Hudson Institute, Hoosier Ag Today, and debunkosaurus.

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley has defended the professor's free speech rights. Hayes is preparing to submit a new study co-authored with dozens of scientists around the world that says atrazine is a reproductive toxin. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to hold more hearings on the chemical's use. And Hayes is enjoying a newfound pop culture following.

Syngenta's efforts to tarnish his reputation have backfired, Hayes said.

"Now you have young people who might not pick up Science magazine or Nature ... but now they can read a story about a chemical that does harm and about what the company's trying to do," he said in an interview. "The portion of society that you're capturing are the people who are most affected ... (Syngenta) alerted a community that was previously unaware."

The background: Hayes and Syngenta have been locked in battle for about a decade over atrazine, a weed-killer that is banned in the European Union but widely used by corn and sugar cane growers in the United States. Hayes' research says atrazine is an endocrine disrupter that has decreased fertility in fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. Syngenta has tried to discredit Hayes' work and has funded numerous studies that say the chemical is safe.

The fight exploded this summer when Syngenta filed an ethics complaint against Hayes at UC Berkeley and publicized 102 pages of e-mails from Hayes to Syngenta employees and researchers, spanning nearly 10 years.

It's a raucous read in which Hayes casts himself as a fearless scientist from hard-scrabble roots pitted in a moral battle against an evil chemical company and its intellectually challenged minions. (He even suggests that Denzel or Jamie Foxx play him in the hypothetical movie.) Some of the e-mails are bawdy, such as this 2005 note about a Syngenta employee who said that Hayes was cherry-picking data:

ps with regards to your comments in philadelphia...don't worry...daddy has no intentions of picking your cherry. that's not my style.

Or this, one, responding to a statement that atrazine was a "vital tool" for U.S. farmers for nearly 50 years:

how long have YOU been a "vital tool"?

...ps. i got your "vital tool" right here.

Many of the e-mails feature rhymes:

you thought you hit a nerve,
but i threw a curve
and sho' cold busted a vein
see the man in black
just keeps coming back
while you flushin yo money down the drain

so go'head bring "your boys"
cuz i'm bringing the noise
i told ya, you can't stop the rage
you been braggin
but we'll see who's tea baggin
when TDawg hits the stage

And some get grandiose:

I could have gotten whatever I wanted out of Syngenta...I chose to say no...I chose integrity...and I won...Even if you could destroy me now, I would go down a martyr for the environment...my granddaughter's daughter will honor me as I honor my grandmother...

I am a tenured full professor with a lifetime endowment at one of the top two biology departments in the world. I don't HAVE to do anything. If I quit I still have my position, my salary, my endowment and my freedom to do whatever I want...

Syngenta wrote a letter in July to UC Regent Russell Gould, UC President Mark Yudof and UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, saying that Hayes has subjected employees of Syngenta Crop Protection Inc. to numerous harassing e-mails. "These emails have not only been aggressive, unprofessional and insulting, but also salacious and lewd," Syngenta's attorney Alan Nadel wrote.

Hayes said Syngenta was probably trying to discredit him in advance of his testimony at an EPA scientific advisory panel in Washington in September. The EPA is reviewing atrazine's use in a series of hearings, Greenwire reported.

UC Berkeley responded with a letter Aug. 26, saying that while it did not condone the language of the e-mails, it doesn't violate any university policies and is protected free speech. The letter notes that Hayes was responding to personal attacks by Syngenta employees, particularly their principal scientist, Tim Pastoor. Hayes said in an interview that Pastoor would say outrageous things to him right before he was about to give a presentation to throw him off. Syngenta responded with another letter in September.

Hayes admits he got a bit of a stomachache when his e-mails appeared on Bossip.com,  wedged next to a story about Beyonce's camel-toe. But he says the publicity has only helped popularize the issue.

His speaking engagements have roughly doubled since the summer, going from one per week on average to two or three per week nowadays, he said. He considers himself a black Rachel Carson, fighting Syngenta with fire. He says he can speak better than his detractors, write better than them, and if they descend to personal attacks he can beat them at that game too.

"The truth is, I have never hit anybody, but like Eddie Murphy used to say, 'I know how to act like I can fight real good,'" he said.

 

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