San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Transgenic Food Found Here

SOME Costa Ricans might never suspect that theyellow corn they buy at the Mercado Central, indowntown San José, may be a genetically modifiedtype of maize.A regional study by the Central AmericanBiodiversity Protection Alliance, the results of whichwere discussed at a conference last week, revealedthat 48% of 33 soy and corn samples collected inCosta Rica last year contain transgenic material.Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), alsoknown as transgenics, are produced in laboratoriesthrough genetic engineering, and are designed toexhibit certain traits. Crops can be modified to resistviral infections, bacteria, fungi and pesticides (TT,Nov. 19, 2004).ENVIRONMENTALISTS in Costa Rica, includingthe President’s son Fabián Pacheco, adamantlyoppose GMOs, saying they represent a threat to bothpeople and the environment.“Among their potential health risks, GMOs cancause allergies and genetic alterations, and affect thedigestive system. Economically, they may induce thevulnerability of alternative practices, such as organicagriculture,” the outspoken activist told members of thepress at the anti-GMO conference last week, held at theJournalists’ Association headquarters in west San José.The laboratory analysis of corn and soy collectedin Costa Rica is part of a larger study throughoutCentral America and the Caribbean, conducted lastyear by the anti-GMO group Biodiversity ProtectionAlliance.Results suggest millions of the region’s residents unknowingly consume and possibly evenharvest transgenic crops.LABORATORY tests conducted forthe study show 80% of all grain andlegume samples analyzed from CentralAmerica and the Dominican Republicyielded positive results for genetic alteration,which GMO opponents call “transgeniccontamination.”In Costa Rica, 11 in 28 samples of cornand all five soy samples collected for thestudy tested positive for genetic modification.The samples were collected last yearat the central Pacific port of Caldera, theAtlantic port of Moín and the MercadoCentral in San José.The grain samples were analyzed usingfield technology to meet the standards ofthe U.S. Federal Grain Inspection Service,according to the study. Results were thenconfirmed through quantitative and qualitativeanalyses by the Iowa-based GeneticID Inc. laboratories in the United States, alab of international prominence recognizedby the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA).Although the study mentions theUniversity of Costa Rica’s Faculty of FoodSciences as a participant in the research,faculty director Luis Felipe Aráuz told thedaily La Nación the university cannot certifythe study’s results.“We are not saying it’s a lie, or that thestudy is inaccurate, but the process was notchanneled officially through the university,’’Aráuz told the daily this week.SEVERAL activist groups in CostaRica, arguing studies on the impact ofGMOs on human health and the environmentare insufficient, requested a moratoriumon transgenic crops here last year(TT, April 23, 2004).“The request now lies in thePresident’s hands. He has not yet responded,”said Walter Quirós, chief of the technicaldepartment at the AgricultureMinistry’s National Seeds Office.The engineer explained that althoughthe Ministry of the Environment andEnergy (MINAE) has declared its supportfor the moratorium, the AgricultureMinistry does not believe GMO cropsshould be banned.“The Ministry of Agriculture neitherpromotes nor rejects transgenics. Webelieve they offer an important opportunityto the agricultural industry and theirrisks should be evaluated from an impartialstandpoint,” Quirós said, adding “it isnot accurate to speak of transgenic ‘contamination,’”because GMOs are not aproven threat.IN Costa Rica, no requests have beenmade to import transgenic seeds, Quiróssaid, although existing agricultural legislationdoes not establish any prohibitionsfor their import other than a proceduremeant to evaluate the potential risks ofproducts.In fact, the only requests involvingtransgenics so far have been for investigationby the University of Costa Rica andseed crops of soy and cotton exclusivelyfor export, according to Quirós.Last year, approximately 630 hectaresof genetically modified soy and cotton forexport to the United States were grown inthe northwestern province of Guanacaste,an area expected to double this year,Quirós said.“The U.S. Food and Drug Administrationis tremendously demanding indemonstrating the innocuousness of productsto be placed on the market, and for thepast 8-10 years, transgenic soy and cornhave been consumed in the United States,”he said.AT the anti-GMO event last week,Pacheco emphasized his opposition to theproposed Central American Free-TradeAgreement (CAFTA) with the UnitedStates, saying that if the treaty is ratified,Costa Rica could wind up importing moreand more transgenic products from theUnited States, where an estimated threefourths of soy crops are genetically modified.Certain U.S. transgenic products, suchas a variety of corn called Starlink, producedby the biotechnology firm Aventis,have not been approved for human consumption,GMO opponents reminded thepress.Starlink corn was commercially grownin the United States from 1998-2000, andalthough it is has been approved for cattlefeed it is banned for human consumption,according to Elaine Samson, spokeswomanfor the U.S. Embassy in San José.“STUDIES revealed that a proteinadded to Starlink corn to protect it frominsects and allow farmers to use less fertilizer,produced an allergic reaction in somepeople,” Samson said.According to the study by the CentralAmerican Biodiversity Protection Alliance,Starlink corn was identified among thehumanitarian aid destined for Guatemalanchildren near the Honduran border.The alliance is demanding that CentralAmerican and Caribbean governmentsimmediately ban humanitarian aid containingStarlink corn.The group also seeks to stop the distributionof grains and legumes containingGMOs in the area, and advocates helpinglocal farmers by purchasing their seeds andcrops, rather than importing them fromabroad.What is a Genetically Modified Organism?TO create a transgenic animal or plant– also known as a genetically modifiedorganism – one or more genes from anothertype of organism are artificially insertedinto the DNA of the species’ chromosomes.Because DNA is responsible for theexpression of certain characteristics, thisprocess allows for the creation of desiredtraits, such as plant disease resistance orthe delayed ripening of fruits.The process of changing the trait of aplant begins by extracting a strand of DNAout of an organism with a desired characteristic.The gene that contains the codesfor the needed protein is then extractedfrom the DNA.This gene is cloned and modified byscientists so that the desired trait will beexpressed once inside the new plant.Enzymes cut the gene apart so it can bespliced with other genes. The result iscalled recombinant DNA.This is then inserted into a single plantcell, and must land in the cell’s nucleus andbe incorporated into one of the chromosomes,which enables it be expressed andpassed on to offspring.The nature of plant cells allows thiscell, under favorable conditions, to multiplyinto a complete plant with cells that containthe new gene.–Rebecca Kimitch

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