COSTA Rica boasts more than 10,000different plant species.An area of Argentina three times thesize of Costa Rica boasts one: geneticallymodified soy.This reality is changing the face of notonly Argentina’s economy, but also thecountry’s society and culture, Argentineanactivist Carlos Vicente told Costa Ricanstudents, professors, farmers, and unionleaders at a conference held last week atUniversidad Nacional (UNA) in Heredia.Vicente is part of the non-governmentalorganization GRAIN, which promotesagricultural biodiversity. GRAIN membersfrom around the world visited Costa Ricato encourage citizens and policy makers tobe cautious about genetically modifiedorganisms (GMOs) as the country establishesa National Framework in Biosecurityto regulate the new technology.Although GMO cultivation in CostaRica is presently limited to less than 600hectares (1,500 acres) for seed research(TT, April 2), scientists are attempting tocreate a banana resistant to the devastatingblack sigatoka disease.Proposals are also before the Ministryof Agriculture to grow GMO crops for animalfeed.GMOS, also known as transgenics, arecrops genetically modified by scientists toexhibit certain traits, such as disease orherbicide resistance.“Our question is not just the science oftransgenics, but the culture of agriculture,”Vicente said at the July 15 conference,Threats to Biological and Cultural Diversity.Transgenic soy first appeared inArgentina in 1991 and is now grown on 14million hectares (54,000 square miles).The majority of this crop is RoundupReady Soy, created by GMOs biggest corporation,Monsanto. The soy was geneticallymodified to be resistant to Roundup, anherbicide sold by Monsanto. Problematicweeds – and all other species – are thereforekilled without affecting the soy.“This has had a terrible effect on the biodiversityof our agriculture,” Vicente said.Furthermore, soy production hasreduced the agricultural labor force –requiring only about one worker per 500hectares (1,200 acres).“We have seen a brutal expelling ofworkers to the cities,” he said. “Milk andgrain production has been totally displaced.”The Argentinean government has setgoals to increase the soy crop by 1 millionhectares (3,800 square miles) peryear, Vicente said.CORN is part of Mexico’s eating culture,and it too is threatened by GMOs,conference attendees were told. Cross-pollinationfrom transgenic corn is eliminatinglocal varieties, with dangerous repercussions,said Mexican Aldo González, whorepresents the Sierra Juárez de OaxacaUnion of Organizations.For more than 6,000 years, indigenousin Mexico have grown corn. Farmers haveadapted hundreds of species to grow in thecountry’s various climates and elevations.Still, Mexico began importing geneticallymodified corn from the United Statesin the 1990s under the North AmericanFree-Trade Agreement (NAFTA).In 2001, researchers from theUniversity of California at Berkeley discoveredMexican corn varieties were being“contaminated” by corn grown from thetransgenic imports, meaning their geneticmaterial was altered.Asurvey of the country in 2003 revealednine states had contaminated corn, someexpressing unusual physical characteristicslike exposed roots, four-meter-long stemsand corn cobs with only one grain of corn.“The Mexican government has notdeveloped a single policy to stop this,”González said.“The whole of humanity is at risk,” hecontinued. “In 1970, in the eastern UnitedStates, a fungus attacked corn crops. Toeradicate this pest, researchers went toMexico and found a variety resistant to thefungus. We need these varieties.”ZAMBIAN Lovemore Simwanda,who is head of the Zambian FarmersUnion, said despite serious U.S. pressure,Zambia rejected requests to grow or eatgenetically modified crops. Eighty percentof the country’s population is comprised ofsmall-scale farmers.In 2001 and 2002, experts predicted aserious food crisis for southern Africa,including Zambia. Approximately 4.2 millionpeople were predicted to die.“Our good brothers said ‘we don’twant 4.2 million people to die,’ so the U.S.Food Aid program offered us a loan oftransgenic grain,” Simwanda said.Debate over whether to accept the loanrevealed the country was not at risk of thefood shortage some suggested. The countrydecided to reject the offer.FEEDING the world’s hungry is oneof the biggest myths of GMOs, GRAINdirector Henk Hobbelink said.More than 90% of commercial GMOsare soy, corn, canola and cotton. Most aregrown for exportation or animal feed, notlocal consumption. The vast majority aregrown for herbicide or insect resistance,rather than characteristics more appropriatefor developing countries, like poor soilconditions or drought, Hobbelink said.More than 90% of these crops aregrown in the United States, Canada, Chinaand Argentina.“It is the United States and Canada whoare trying to convince the world to acceptthese seeds,” he said. “And they are almostall coming from one company, Monsanto.”RATHER than buckling under U.S.pressure, Zambia has created its own policyon transgenics.“We are trying to be proactive and notreactive,” Simwanda said. “We are holdingforums in schools and universities, assessingand monitoring the gene flows in thesouthern Africa region. And in the past fewyears we have grown a surplus with conventionalfarming.” Simwanda suggestedCosta Rica do the same.“You need to make sure all stakeholdersare part of the discussion,” he said.Costa Rica is in the process of creatingits own comprehensive approach to transgenicsthrough the National Framework inBiosecurity. The framework is expected toresult in legislation regarding handling andimport/export of GMOs.Although the framework is still inworking form, coordinator Alex May saidit includes provisions to require labeling onall products that include transgenics, aswell as regulations regarding where andhow transgenic crops can be grown.Nevertheless, GMO opponents inCosta Rica have called for a 10-year moratoriumon transgenic crops while theirpotential effects are studied (TT, April 23).