A consortium of Costa Rican environmental groups are demanding a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in the country.
The Costa Rica Federation for the Conservation of the Environment (FECON) has asked the government for a 10-year ban to give scientists time to determine the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on human health and the environment.
Genetically modified cotton and soy crops currently grow on 583.62 hectares (1,442.18 acres) in Costa Rica, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. These crops are grown for their seeds, all of which are exported to the United States, according to the ministry.
ALSO known as transgenics, GMOs are plants and animals that have been genetically altered by scientists to possess certain traits, such as delayed ripening or disease resistance.
Members of FECON insist such crops could cause permanent damage to the Costa Rican environment through contamination of surrounding, non-transgenic crops as well as by causing pesticide-resistant insects to appear.
Although these crops are not grown for local consumption, members of FECON say they also worry about the indirect health effects they could have on people, particularly pregnant women, who handle the crops.
“A lot of potential risks are being studied right now by scientists, particularly in Europe, so we are asking that cultivation be stopped until this discussion has reached its conclusions,” said Fabián Pacheco, an agricultural scientist with the Costa Rican Social Ecology Association (AESO).
James Olson, manager of transgenic-seed grower Semillas Olson, says GMOs have already passed the test of time.
“In all of these years there have been zero fatalities or problems, so I am not sure what all of the controversy about. It has no base in scientific fact,” he said.
Semillas Olson has grown genetically modified crops in Guanacaste for more than 13 years, he said. In 2003, the company grew 177 hectares (437.38 acres) of modified cotton and just over two hectares (about five acres) of genetically modified (GM) soy.
Seeds from these crops are exported to the United States for use and study by public and private universities, seed companies and the U.S. government, Olson said.
The climate in Costa Rica allows seeds to be grown during the U.S. winter, permitting accelerated research, Olson said.
FECON members say they are particularly worried about the contamination of non-GM cotton plants by GM seeds, because cotton used as a base for introducing new genes during genetic modification is of Mesoamerican origin, according to Pacheco.
“They have discovered that you should not grow transgenic crops in their country of origin because of the possibility of contamination,” Pacheco said.
Crop contamination could reach as far as Nicaragua, where no transgenic crops are grown, Pacheco said.
According to Olson, guidelines and inspections by the National Biosafety Technical Committee and the National Seed Office ensure that cross contamination does not occur.
“WE are much more regulated than you can imagine. The standards are so high, they are used as a model for the whole region, Central America and the Caribbean,” Olson said.
He said he respects isolation distances between his crops and those of his neighbors, thus preventing cross contamination.
No other cotton crops are in the area, except his own non-GM crops, which have not been affected by the surrounding GM crops, he added.
Furthermore, the nature of cotton is that it can only breed with itself, preventing any threat to other kinds of crops, he said. Because soybean plants pollinate before the flower opens, there is no threat of bee activity causing cross-pollination in that crop either, Olson said.
“From the moment the seeds arrive, to the moment they leave, it is all highly monitored or destroyed,” he said.
RAYNER Ramírez, President of the National Biosafety Technical Committee, was not available for comment on regulation policies.
“There is no imminent risk to the environment in the case of these crops,” said Alex May, project coordinator for an Agriculture Ministry-led effort to create guidelines on how the country will approach the subject of GMOs (TT, April 2).
It is before this project’s leaders that FECON placed its request for a moratorium earlier this month.
Pacheco claims the ministry has involved the public too late in this project – halfway through the 18-month process – and already has taken a pro-GMO stance.
FECON says it also plans to make a formal request for a moratorium to the Legislative Assembly in the form of a bill.
FECON members also fear increased use of pesticides on transgenic cotton crops could cause birth defects and harm the surrounding environment. Some transgenic crops are altered to withstand certain pesticides that are then used in high doses to kill surrounding weeds, Pacheco claimed.
This, along with other information on GMOs, will be shared with visitors at this weekend’s Solar Festival in Guanacaste (see Weekend Section), Pacheco said.
Through events like this, and forums and radio campaigns, FECON members are hoping to raise awareness about GMOs, which they say is seriously lacking in Costa Rica.
A poll by researchers at the University of Costa Rica in 2002 revealed that approximately half of respondents had some knowledge of GMOs. The poll said 21% of respondents believe GM foods pose a health risk.
Around 30% supported research into GM crops and a similar number trusted the country’s regulatory institutions.
The University of Costa Rica, which did not respond to requests for information from The Tico Times, and the TropicalAgricultureCenter for Research and Learning (CATIE) are both conducting GMO research.
CATIE is in the preliminary stages of a study to use genetic modification to create a banana or plantain resistant to the black sigatoka disease, according to María Elena Aguilar, of the CATIE technology laboratory in Costa Rica.
ALTHOUGH the research has just begun, the ultimate goal is to create a transgenic banana, Aguilar said.
However, before such a crop could be grown for national consumption, any producer would need to solicit the approval of the Ministry of Agriculture, May said.
The Ministry has no such requests before them, although there are currently a number of requests to grow transgenic crops for consumption by animals, he said.
The Ministry has yet to make any decisions on these requests, he added.