“A lot of people talk about transgenic(foods), but not a lot of people know aboutthem,” said Dr. Daniel Vidal, as he openedan international class on biotechnologyand food at the University of Costa Ricaresearch campus last week.The weeklong course, attended byleaders in the field from throughoutCentral America and the Caribbean,focused on advances in biotechnologyincluding genetically modified organisms(GMOs).Vidal maintains that if more peopleknew about the science that has createddisease-resistant corn, higher-protein riceand larger fish, there would not be suchwidespread apprehension.GMO opponents fear that plants andanimals genetically altered by scientists toexpress certain traits could have negativehealth and environmental impacts (TT,April 2). The Costa Rican Federation forthe Conservation of the Environment(FECON) has asked the government for a10-year moratorium on the cultivation ofgenetically modified crops in the country(TT, April 23).THE 80 genetically modified foods inexistence have been tested for health safetyas extensively, or more, than any conventionalfood product, Vidal told his audienceof scientists, students and Ministry ofAgriculture officials.“But there is no such thing as zero risk.Even with conventional foods, some peopleare allergic to nuts,” he said in responseto opponents’ concerns that scientists arecreating foods that have never existedbefore and will have an unknown impacton the human body.Genetic engineering allows for greatersafety than genetic altering techniques previouslyused, Vidal said. The expert infood biotechnology from the University ofValencia in Spain used the popular argumentthat people have been using biotechnologyto alter foods for 12,000 years,through techniques such as crossbreeding.“Since man decided to become afarmer, he has applied genetics,” he said.“For thousands of years, man has usedbiotechnology. Fifty years ago, we startedto understand why.”Genetic altering over the years hasproduced variations of crops that did notpreviously exist, such as such as broccoliand cauliflower, he said.REGARDLESS, Vidal said herespects people’s right to choose, and supportsthe labeling of products that are madewith GMOs.Labeling of products that includeGMOs is one of the most contentious issuesin the global debate over the science.While European countries enforcestrict rules in labeling – particularly importantsince the European Union lifted itssix-year ban on biotech products lastmonth with the approval for human consumptionof an insect-resistant strain ofcorn – most countries have no such rules.In Costa Rica, a bill has been submittedto the Legislative Assembly calling forthe labeling of food products that containGMOs (TT, Nov. 14, 2003). In the UnitedStates, GMO-opponents are pushing theGenetically Engineered Food Right toKnow Act (HR2916), which would requirelabeling.HELPING Central American andCaribbean countries develop their ownframework for approaching the GMOdebate was one of the main goals of lastweek’s course. The National Council forScientific and Technological Research(CONICIT) and the United NationsUniversity Biotechnology Program forLatin America and the Caribbean(UNU/BIOLAC) organized the course.“We are trying to plant a seed that peoplewill be able to take back to their owncountries,” said Verónika Brundula ofUNU/BIOLAC. “The idea is that all ofthese students will continue to talk andstay in touch through the Internet, comparingexperiences in each of their countries.”The most important thing for countriesthat are just starting to enter the GMO discussionis to develop debate between allinterested parties, Vidal said.This is particularly important indeveloping countries, where governmentshave found hope in crops that are geneticallymodified to be disease resistant, tolerantto acidic soils and higher in nutritionalcontent.However, Vidal was quick to rejectthe notion that GMOs alone will stopworld hunger.NOT only will GMOs not stop worldhunger, opponents say, they will have devastatingimpacts on surrounding crops.Because they cannot be contained, the cultivationof GMOs threatens to destroy theexistence of any traditional crop thoughcross-pollination (TT, April 23).While proponents argue that the scienceis better for the environment by requiringfewer pesticides, opponents fear it couldhave the reverse effect. Because some GMcrops are created to release their own pesticide,the science also could produce pesticide-resistant insects, opponents warn.Vidal admitted that there will undoubtedlybe some impacts on the environmentfrom GM crops. He maintained they arefew, due in part to adequate buffer zonesbetween GM and conventional crops.BEYOND providing information,another goal of the class was to give countriesguidance in following the CartagenaProtocol on Biosafety, which still must beratified by Costa Rica.The Cartagena Protocol regulates themovement of living genetically modifiedorganisms across international borders.The treaty aims for greater transparency inGMOs by obliging countries using livingmodified organisms as food, feed or processingto inform the world community viathe Biosafety Clearinghouse before theproducts can be exported.The protocol has been ratified by 90countries and went into effect Sept. 11,2003.