Tyrone B. Hayes is Hard As Hell: Scientist’s Emails Bring Controversial Herbicide to Light

September 6, 2010  |  

by R. Asmerom

Dr. Tyrone Hayes tells The Atlanta Post his side of the story.

tyrone b hayes is hard as hell
battle anybody, i don’t care who you tell
you object! you will fail!
mercy for the weak is not for sale

The above ll cool j-inspired lyrics were part of one of the many emails that biology professor Dr. Tyrone Hayes wrote to Syngenta, a company that makes herbicides to protect corn crops from weeds. When these rap lyric laced emails from Hayes hit the news recently, a decade long feud between Hayes and the conglomerate had been reduced to a portrayal of a mad scientist going on attack. Since the initial publicity, however, it has become clear that there’s much more to Syngenta and there’s much more to this renowned African-American professor choosing to express himself through rap lyrics.

From Hayes’ view, the protracted dispute between Syngenta and himself involves the company lashing out at Hayes’ unfavorable research and findings.  “This is about a huge multi-billion dollar corporation who ten years ago hired a new assistant professor to collect some data on their number one selling product,” said Hayes. “I did what they asked and they didn’t like the results and they tried to get me to manipulate those results and to get me to say things that weren’t true and I left the contract and for the last ten years, these guys have really harassed me.”

The Harvard-educated biologist asserts that this spectacle was drummed up to fuel a smear campaign to isolate him from the scientific community and discredit his research.  Even before publicizing these emails, Syngenta, he said, directly attempted to undermine his career.

“They’ve come to [Berkeley multiple] times and tried to persuade my University to [push me to ] work on a different area of research because my research is showing repeatedly that they are contaminating our water supplies with an awful chemical that causes hormone balances,” he said. “They’ve harassed and threatened journals that I’ve published my scientific data in.”

Syngenta is the world’s largest producer of the controversial herbicide artrazine and Hayes, a biologist who specializes in frog development, found that atrazine disrupted the sexual development of frogs ( in some cases turning male subjects into females). This finding has been linked to other problems for which Syngenta is now in the hot seat.  In March, 16 cities sued the company for contaminating their water supplies and the Environmental Protection Agency is now looking into the herbicide’s link to cancer development and birth defects as well as its capacity to disrupt the hormone and reproductive systems of humans and amphibians. Certainly, Hayes’ research plays heavily in these motions.

“What they’re worried about now is that the data is continuing to come out. Just yesterday, [research was released] showing that atrazine not only causes mammary problems and birth problems but also prostrate problems. Other studies are showing that it causes birth defects in humans, and low sperm count in men.”

There are a lot of pressures to ban atrazine from the U.S but since Syngenta, like other chemical and drug companies, generates billions of dollars annually, it’s not giving up without a fight. The company reported $1.37 billion dollars in profits in 2009. “They’re the biggest in the world and atrazine is their number one selling product,” said Hayes.

Given that the weed killer is not widely used in Europe, where the company is based, Syngenta is fighting for its economic survival as a ban here in the U.S. will certainly impact its bottom line.

When asked what would replace atrazine as a weed killer if it were to be banned, Hayes said that nothing should replace it, given that its impact on corn and the importance of corn production are both relatively insignificant.

“At best, [atrazine] increases corn by 1.2 percent. We eat less than 2 percent of the corn we grow in this country,” he said. “We’re making ethanol out of it. We’re feeding cows and pigs and making plastics. Twenty percent of the world dies of starvation and we’re growing our biggest crop and we only eat 2 percent of it? That’s what they’re fighting to keep on the market. That’s what they’re fighting me for.”

Hayes said the company’s fight to protect atrazine and its use has led to consistent harassment on the part of Syngenta. He claims that the company has threatened his life, made lewd racial comments and filed false complaints, which led to federal agents showing up in his classroom.  Most recently, in February, Hayes was in Illinois testifying on atrazine before the state legislature when he was “cornered” by one Syngenta’s representatives. “[The interaction]  ended with ‘next time you give a talk, I’m going to bring some of my good ol boys.’” Soon after, Hayes was accidentally cc’d on an email sent by one of Syngenta’s lawyers, apparently commending the aggressor’s remarks according to Hayes.

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