By the year 2025, the world population is expected to have reached approximately 8.1 billion, a significant increase in the number of mouths to feed, according to Paul Christou, a world authority in plant biotechnology.
With 40% of the world’s nutritional calories coming from only two crops, wheat and rice, the potential volatility of its food supply if these crops encounter any problems is evident, said Christou, from Spain, who discussed plant biotechnology in contemporary agriculture Monday at an international forum on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also called transgenics.
Gene-modified plants may also hold the key to stopping the spread of AIDS and treating other diseases such as diabetes, according to the scientist.
Christou, along with other international transgenic research authorities, proposed genetically modified crops as a solution to these global issues during the forum, held Monday and Tuesday at the University of Costa Rica’s research facilities in Sabanilla, east of San José.
Transgenic research authorities from Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and the United States participated in the conference, organized by the Agriculture Ministry and the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
According to forum organizer Alex May, from the Biotechnology Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG), the activity’s fundamental purpose was to provide information about a topic that has generated much public alarm.
“Gene manipulation raises fear in people, like every new technology. But people should know there’s no such thing as zero risk – not in cell phones, cars, or food,” he told The Tico Times during the conference, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in San José, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Latin American Network of Biology, UCR and the Agriculture Ministry.
Transgenic organisms are designed in laboratories to exhibit certain traits, such as resistance to viruses, insects and to contain more nutritional value (TT Nov. 19, 2004).
Plants can also be genetically modified to hold genes capable of producing medicinal proteins such as insulin for diabetics, Christou explained during another discussion Tuesday.
If the safety of gene transfer technology is approved, in the future, corn, potato and rice fields could hold the necessary proteins to produce medicine and vaccines, the daily La Nación reported.
Christou is working on developing an antibody for HIV through gene transfer in plants, which, through vaginal application, would prevent contraction of AIDS in women. The medicine, meant to restrain the spread of this virus among African women, could be ready for clinical testing within three years, he said.
Crops Grown Here
In Costa Rica, approximately 1,000 hectares in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and on the Caribbean slope have been planted with transgenic crops – mostly cotton and soy, according to May.
The GMO plantations lend counterseason services to North American companies that cannot farm their GMO plantations during the winter, and are not meant for Costa Rican consumption, he explained. Because Costa Rica is a small country, it is not a prime GMO plantation spot, but rather a scientific research location, he added.
In 2004, agriculture officials said approximately 630 hectares of GMO soy and cotton were being grown in Guanacaste for export to the United States (TT, Feb. 25, 2005).
While Christou argued that GMOs are not inconsistent with environmental friendliness and health because they could imply a reduction in the use of pesticides, Costa Rican environmentalists remain adamantly opposed to GMOs.
Fabián Pacheco, president of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), said it’s not true that GMOs will reduce pesticide use. Because thousands of different types of plagues exist, a given plant could cease to require a certain type of pesticide but still require others, he said.
Pacheco, President Abel Pacheco’s son, added that GMOs do not represent a solution to world hunger.
“World hunger is not about a lack of food, it is about the (improper) distribution of food,” he told The Tico Times Monday.
The impassioned environmentalist described the transgenics forum as “ridiculous and offensive” because it brought a group of foreign scientists to impose their views on Costa Ricans without consulting the country’s small agricultural and indigenous groups.
“Once you create a living being, there is no telling what could happen,” he said, explaining that not a single scientist in the world fully understands genetics, and human knowledge of the field is “like a tiny star of light in a universe of obscurity.”