San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Genetically Modified Organisms -- Agriculture Dilemma Heats Up

As activists become more vocal in their oppositionto genetically modified organisms (GMOs)– calling for a moratorium, threatening todestroy existing crops and recruiting the supportof government officials – Costa Rican scientistsare defending the controversial technology.Fearing Costa Rica will become a country thatprohibits the advance of science and technology,Pedro León, director of the National Center forHigh Technology (CENAT), said a moratorium onthe growth of genetically modified crops wouldsend a contradictory signal to international academicsand investors.León and a group of scientists from the University ofCosta Rica (UCR) say no scientific evidence suggestsGMOs pose any threat to public health or the environment– as opponents claim. Research proves otherwise,they say.GMO opponents, and some who are undecided, maintainthere is a lack of studies on the environmental andhealth impacts of GMOs that take into account CostaRica’s ecosystems, making a moratorium on modified crops a necessity until more is known.While the moratorium has receivedthe support of Environment and EnergyMinister Carlos Rodríguez, no other governmentofficials have responded to therequest, the moratorium’s supporters saidyesterday.A moratorium would have to bedeclared by President Abel Pacheco, withsupport from the ministers of Agriculture,Health, Environment and Foreign Trade,according to Alex May, director of aneffort to produce a national framework forGMO regulation.THE GMO debate, which formallyentered the academic arena here earlier thisyear, reached new heights last week in aroundtable discussion involving León, ministerRodríguez and outspoken environmentalistand GMO opponent Fabián Pacheco.Pacheco – son of President Pacheco –told the students, professors, farmers andactivists packing a lecture room at UCR,east of San José, that if no moratorium isgranted, environmentalists would destroyexisting and any future genetically modifiedcrops. He said a moratorium is not achoice, but a necessity.MODIFIED soy and cotton are beinggrown on slightly more than 600 hectaresin Costa Rica, primarily in Guanacaste,according to the Ministry of Agriculture(TT, Oct. 1). These crops are grown fortheir seeds, all of which are exported to theUnited States.The request for a moratorium, firstmade in April (TT, April 23), was formallypresented in September by variousactivist groups to the National TechnicalCommission on Biosecurity, which isassisting the effort to create a nationalframework on how to approach the GMOquestion (TT, April 2). The Commissionconsists primarily of officials from theMinistry of Agriculture, but also othergovernment agencies.GMO plants, also called transgenics,are species that have been geneticallymodified to demonstrate certain characteristics,such as resistance to viral infections,bacteria and fungi, as well as herbicides.GMOs are created when genes fromone species are inserted into another toproduce the desired characteristics.Scientists are also researching other possibilitiesof the technology – such as creatingagricultural crops that can be irrigatedwith salt water.In the moratorium request, GMOopponents say this manipulation produces“genetic sequences” that are not entirelyknown and could result in the expressionof certain unexpected, negative characteristics,particularly when the GMO interactswith the local ecosystem.A team of scientists responded to thisconcern, and the 14 other points in themoratorium request, in a 13-page document,also sent to the National Commission onBiosecurity and the Agriculture Ministry.THESE scientists acknowledge thatthe complete “genome sequence” – whatthey say is the proper term for geneticsequence – is not known for any agriculturalcrop, transgenic or traditional,although up to 90% of the sequence isknown in some species.What they say is important is theyknow the “regulation system” that determineswhether a certain gene will expressitself or not.The scientists’ rebuttal also says spontaneousmutations are possible in all plants– transgenic and traditional – because cropgenomes are notoriously variable.Transgenic crops are, at least, heavilymonitored, the scientists maintain.The scientists are lead by MartaValdez, coordinator of UCR’s InstitutionalCommission on Biotechnology; FranciscoSaborío, of UCR’s Center for AgriculturalResearch; and Ana Mercedes Espinoza,researcher for UCR’s Center for Cellularand Molecular Biology Research.They say commission regulations ontransgenic crops in Costa Rica also providesecurity against another risk GMO opponentslabel a threat – the spread of transgenicseeds and pollen outside of theirgrowth area, leading to the perversion of traditionalcrops.THE Biodiversity CoordinationNetwork – one of the leading anti-GMOgroups – has photos of what members sayis transgenic cotton sprouting new rootsoutside areas designated for the growth ofthe transgenic crop in Guanacaste.“Contamination is not a question of if,but when,” Pacheco said, citing cases inMexico and Hawaii where traditional cornand papaya crops were contaminated.“They are breaking millions of yearsof natural evolution,” he said.Scientists respond that regulationsrequire the elimination of the remnants ofa transgenic crop after a harvest and theestablishment of buffer zones betweentransgenic and traditional crops. TheNational Commission on Biosecuritymakes regular visits to transgenic cropsites to enforce this regulation, accordingto the rebuttal.IN their plea for a moratorium, GMOopponents also maintain more studies ontransgenic crops in tropical ecosystems arenecessary in the areas of: impact on localplants, release of toxins in soil, allergicreactions of transgenic pollen on mammals;and effects on the health of workerswho handle transgenic crops.The Costa Rican scientists claim studiesand scientific research have proved nothreat exists in any of these areas.“To this date there exists no evidencethat the release of transgenic crops has had anegative impact on the environment,because the releases have been done undervigilant monitoring … and no health damagehas been demonstrated either,” León said.The CENAT director cited a report bythe European Union that makes this conclusionbased on the results of 81 studies duringthe past 15 years on GMO cultivation.HOWEVER, a group of students atEARTH University – an international universitydedicated to agricultural sciencesand natural resources located nearGuápiles, on the Caribbean slope –announced their support for the moratorium,based on their own research and thestudies of others.“Genetically modified foods do notsatisfy the nourishment needs of the developingworld, and on the contrary favor theextended production of crops in developedcountries, creating an excess of foods inthe hands of those who do not need them,”according to a statement signed byEARTH student Hernando Morera.SCIENTISTS and GMO opponents inCosta Rica also disagree on the potentialeconomic impact of a moratorium.A letter to President Pacheco, signedby 48 academics, states the growth oftransgenic crops will result in agriculturalproducts with added value, and will“increase the competitiveness of CostaRica in international markets.”However, those calling for a moratorium,particularly organic farmers and theEnvironment Minister, maintain transgeniccrops could contaminate organicproduce, and have negative impacts onthat growing industry here.THE lack of certainty regarding GMOsis what inspired Minister Rodríguez tothrow his support behind a moratorium.“Although I may not support all of thepoints of the moratorium, that fact is wehaven’t had enough open conversation onthis topic,” he said.“This is not a prohibition, rather amoratorium while we come up with apolicy… just to give us time to research,to think. As a state, we want to come upwith a balance,” he said.

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