ALTHOUGH genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have crossed Costa Rican borders growing on nearly 600 hectares in several areas and lining grocery store shelves around the country discussion of the highly polemical technology is barely budding.
Both opponents and supporters of the science are doing their best to cultivate dialogue about the international issue on Costa Rican soil as attempts to regulate the industry unfold.
GMOs, also called transgenic organisms, are plants and animals that have been genetically altered to possess certain traits, such as disease resistance.
The Agriculture Ministry is 10 months into an 18-month project to create guidelines on how the country will approach the subject.
OPPONENTS of the technology charge they have only recently been invited into the official discussion.
They claim the Agriculture Ministry s project entitled Development of a National Framework in Biosecurity for Costa Rica has relied excessively on the advice of pro-GMO specialists.
Those concerned about the impact of GMOs say the general public needs to be invited to the table.
They have not made this a national discussion, said Isaac Rojas, biodiversity coordinator for Friends of the Earth Costa Rica. It is not possible that specialists alone, whose version is favorable, can come to define the framework. We could all suffer the negative impact to our health, to our food, to our environment. It touches all the people in this country.
PROJECT coordinator Alex May contends he and the project s commission have included the input of many different groups.
In addition to the Public Health Ministry, the Environment Ministry and the National Academy of Sciences, May says consumer groups such as the National Federation of Consumer and User Associations (FENASCO), social organizations such as Mesa Nacional Campesina and environmental groups have been invited to participate.
May and Rojas agree that who is involved is important because opinions on the cultivation, consumption and labeling of GMOs vary widely.
FROM tomatoes that can resist frost with the addition of a gene from salmon, to corn that makes its own pesticide, the practice and potential of genetically altering plants and animals can have remarkable results, proponents say.
The science has been used to create crops that can grow in poor soil, resist damage from insects and worms, and flourish despite weeds.
These advancements lead to greater production levels and higher crop yields, which could be a valuable contribution in solving the problem of the world s food supply, according to a report by Ana Sittenfield and Ana Mercedes Espinoza of the University of Costa Rica.
The amount production levels have increased is incredible in the cultivation of corn and other crops in other regions of the world, May said.
THE potential for medicines could also be a great benefit, May added. For example, insulin. One hundred percent of its production is transgenic.
In addition, a certain type of genetically engineered cotton uses four times less pesticide than the regular type, according to Monsanto Company, the leading biotechnology firm in the field.
This can have benefits not only for the environment, but also for the people who handle and spray such chemicals, proponents say.
GMO opponents, on the other hand, say replacing pesticides with another damaging technology is no benefit.
One of the primary concerns is that transgenic crops cannot be contained. GMO opponents worry pollen from such crops could pass from one farm to another, mix with unmodified plants and eventually reduce the existence of natural plant strains.
Furthermore, because crops that are genetically modified to resist pests are always emitting their inbred pesticides as opposed to periodically applied pesticides there is also concern that more pesticide-resistant insects and worms could emerge.
Also of concern are the potential effects of GMOs on human health, particularly since products containing them are not labeled in Costa Rica, Rojas said.
Genetically modified foods have genes that have never been consumed, which could have implications on known and unknown allergies, Rojas said.
THE long-term effects transgenic crops could have on the insects, birds and mammals that consume them are also unknown, opponents point out.
Some people, particularly in Europe, have resisted GMOs on general principle, labeling them “frankenfoods.”
The European Union imposed a moratorium on new genetically modified foods in 1998. However, last year the European Parliament began discussing ending the ban, as long as labeling regulations are imposed, according to CNN.
“You can make the best product in the world, but if consumers don’t want to eat it, what is the point?” asked Jamie García, a professor in agriculture and the environment at Universidad Estatal a Distancia (UNED).
WHAT both sides can agree on is that there has not been enough discussion of the topic in Costa Rica.
While in other countries the issue has burned so hot laboratories have been set on fire by groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, in Costa Rica awareness of the issue is minimal, May and García said.
García held a forum last week at the UNED campus in San José to discuss the topic and show people “both sides of the issue, which they need to know,” he said.
“It is still a new technology for developing countries, and like all new inventions, the knowledge is poor,” agreed May.
“ONE of the groups we have invited to participate in our meetings is the Legislative Assembly,” May added. “We want them to know and understand what the situation of the country is, what the deficiencies are so they don’t make commitments they can’t complete.”
Two bills have been submitted to the Legislative Assembly regarding GMOs, according to May. One, introduced by Joyce Zürcher from the National Liberation Party, requires the labeling of food products that contain GMOs (TT, Nov. 14, 2003).
The Ministry of Public Health did not respond to requests from The Tico Times by press time for a comment on the use and labeling of GMOs in Costa Rica.
ACCORDING to the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce, the ministry’s Director of Technical Regulation is waiting for a resolution from the international Codex Alimentarius Commission before making a decision on the labeling of products that contain GMOs.
This commission was created in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization to develop international food standards and guidelines, particularly regarding fair trade.
More than 150 countries are members of the commission, and each is allowed one vote when present for topic discussions, according to the Economy Ministry, which operates the local Codex office.
The commission will meet next month to discuss labeling of foods containing genetic engineering, according to the agenda on its Web site.
THE second bill before the Legislative Assembly calls for the ratification of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
The Cartegena Protocol regulates the movement of living genetically modified organisms across international borders.
The treaty aims for greater transparency in GMOs by obliging countries using living modified organisms as food, feed or processing to inform the world community via the Biosafety Clearinghouse before the products can be exported.
The protocol has been ratified by 90 countries and went into effect Sept. 11, 2003.
The ultimate goal of Costa Rica’s project to develop a national framework in biosecurity – funded by the U.N. Environmental Programme and Global Environment Facility – is to create mechanisms the country can use to adhere to the Cartegena Protocol, May said.
LITTLE regulation of GMOs presently exists in Costa Rica.
At total of 583.62 hectares in the country are planted with GMOs for the production of seeds that are exported to the United States, according to May. Crops include cotton, soy, bananas and corn. This is the only cultivation of GMOs in the country, according to May.
“There have been no requests for the commercial growing of genetically modified corn or zapallo (a type of squash) or anything for national consumption,” he said.
However, the Agriculture Ministry, which must approve all commercial crops, has received requests to grow transgenic crops for consumption by animals, according to May. These are pending, he said.
NO limitations exist on GMOs in products imported from countries such as the United States, Canada and Argentina, where cultivation of genetically modified crops is common and labeling is not required.
The Central America Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, which Costa Rica finished negotiating in January (TT, Jan. 30) also could affect the regulation of GMOs in Costa Rica, according to Eva Carazo of the Biodiversity Network.
The treaty must be approved by the U.S. Congress and the Legislative Assembly for it to go into effect in Costa Rica. Under Costa Rican law, international treaties ratified by the Legislative Assembly take precedence over national laws.
If the free-trade pact is approved, it will be more difficult to regulate GMOs, Carazo warned.
For example, a ban on GMOs, or even labeling requirements, could be considered a technical barrier to trade and disputed through CAFTA’s dispute-settlement mechanism, according to Carazo.