During a Nov. 6 protest organized by the environmental collectives Bloque Verde and the Central American Alliance for the Protection of Biodiversity, more than 100 demonstrators in front of the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry in western San José demanded the prohibition of genetically modified corn in Costa Rica.
Inside, members of the National Biosecurity Technical Commission discussed a request by Delta and Pine Land (D&PL), a subsidiary of multinational Monsanto, to plant GM corn seeds in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
A second company, Semillas del Trópico S.A., also sought to import and plant GM seeds, but was rejected because they failed to meet the commission’s requirements.
Although the financial weekly El Financiero reported that D&PL hopes to plant 1-2 hectares of GM corn, and Bloque Verde said the company wants to plant 15 hectares, D&PL spokeswoman Eva Barbosa said the area planted would depend on the nine-member commission’s final evaluation.
Protesters, including environmentalists, students and farmers, hoped to alert members of the commission about the risks they believe are associated with GMOs and their effect on local varieties of corn and on human health.
Farmer Juan Arriaga, a member of the environmental and agricultural organization Sol y Vida in Santa Cruz, the historic city in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, said that introducing GM corn seed in Costa Rica “means shame, hunger, dependence and illness for human beings, and for the nature and biodiversity that we constantly sell [to tourists] in Costa Rica.”
“The ICT [Costa Rican Tourism Board] sells the image abroad that Costa Rica is 100 percent natural, with no artificial ingredients, yet we’re one of the countries that most uses poisonous agricultural chemicals,” Arriaga said. “It’s going to be worse if they permit genetically modified corn.”
Arriaga worries that GM seeds will contaminate local seeds, as corn cultivation depends on open pollination, meaning that plants are pollinated through the air, water and via insects. Some farmers worry that down the road, they’ll end up having to pay for patented seeds.
Before the meeting, agronomy engineer, environmentalist and commission member Fabián Pacheco, said the defense of non-modified, local corn is something that goes beyond a discussion among technocrats in a closed-door meeting.
“We’re talking about the future of farmers’ rights, and that can’t be defined by a closed-door commission,” he said.
Pacheco pointed to studies, such as one by biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini, that indicated genetically modified corn caused tumors and other organ damage to laboratory rats. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has played down the significance of that study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, saying it was inconclusive.
A few days after the commission’s meeting, Pacheco said he had presented various studies and information that demonstrated the problems associated with allowing GM corn into the country.
But Pacheco’s stance against GMOs has locked him out of access to company information on the variety of seed D&PL wants to import: Despite sitting on the commission, the company filed a legal motion to block him and other environmentalists from accessing information about the seed variety, Mon 603.
Barbosa said the varieties of corn the company plans on using in Costa Rica, if approved by the commission, are genetically modified to resist certain insects and to tolerate the application of pesticides. She said the seed is not for human consumption, but rather to generate more seed for export. She added that no scientifically rigorous studies exist showing that GM seeds are unsafe. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization and EFSA, Barbosa said, GMOs are just as safe as their conventional equivalents, which she said is supported by internationally accepted scientific research.
She added that although corn is openly pollinated, studies show that nearly 100 percent of pollen remains within 50 meters of the plant that emits it. Existing regulations of corn-seed certification establish 50 meters of separation with other corn crops to guarantee purity of the seed produced.
That statement is disputed by Luis Felipe Arauz, dean of the University of Costa Rica’s Agri-Food Sciences faculty. Arauz said that because corn pollen travels on the wind, it is impossible to keep it in a designated area. He is concerned that crossing local corn with GM corn could result in the introduction of Monsanto’s patented GM corn into local corn varieties. If that happens, he said, farmers would not be able to plant the hybrid corn, because they could risk legal action by Monsanto.
For Arauz, the risks outweigh the possible benefits for Costa Rica, and he urged commission members to reject the company’s request.
Leda Madrigal, a member of the commission representing the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry, said it is important for the public to know that the commission will base its decision on scientific and technical studies, as established by Costa Rican law.
According to a press release from the Culture Ministry, a group of citizens asked Culture Minister Manuel Obregón to declare local corn a national heritage, therefore affording local varieties official government protection. The request is based on the idea that a culture of corn generates different cultural products associated with many traditions that are represented in gastronomy, music, literature and indigenous culture, said Adrián Vindas, director of the Center for Research and Conservation of Cultural Patrimony.
The commission will vote on the company’s request Dec. 3.