New group seeks to protect native corn from modified species

Cultivated corn was domesticated from teosinte more than 6,000 years ago. During the process, corn lost the ability to survive in the wild, but gained valuable agricultural traits. The suppression of branching from the stalk resulted in a lower number of ears per plant but allows each ear to grow larger. The hard case around the kernel disappeared over time. Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Costa Rican individuals and organizations have joined to ask the government to declare maize a cultural heritage.

The effort is related to one by the Red por Una América Libre de Transgénicos to seek the same designation from the U.N Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The efforts seek to prevent the importation of hybrid or genetically-modified corn that may crossbreed with species here.

The local organization, which calls itself Semillas, Sabores y Saberes, cites a controversial French study that found that rats fed genetically-modified corn and others who ingested water laced with Roundup suffered from a disproportionate number of tumors. Roundup is a weed killer made by Monsanto Co., a U.S.-based firm. The genetically modified corn, NK603, is unaffected by Roundup, so farmers can use the chemical to kill weeds in the corn fields.

The study is controversial because Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen, who conducted the study, is an outspoken opponent of genetically modified foods.

The local group is made up of individuals from The Universidad de Costa Rica, the Universidad Estatal a Distancia, the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje and the Asociación Cultural Sol de Vida in Santa Cruz, according to an announcement.

The local organization said they wanted not only the corn but all the rituals, recipes and traditions that stem from it recognized as cultural heritage. The group did not identify the type of maize they wish to be protected except as native maize.

The corn plant itself is a product of thousands of years of selective breeding. Scientists think the modern plant came from a grass called teosinte, which has a similar genetic structure as
corn, “A teosinte ear is only two to three inches long with five to 12 kernels. Compare that to corn’s 12-inch ear that boasts 500 or more kernels, said the University of California at Irving in a 2005 press release reporting the genetic discoveries. The valley of México is considered the origin of corn. The grain was and still is a major component of Central American food.

The local organization also appears to oppose hybrid corn, too. Most U.S. corn comes from hybrid seed that does not breed true in the subsequent generations. Farmers have to buy seed each year, something they are prepared to do because of the higher yield of hybrids.

Genetically modified plants are different than those created by selective breeding. Monsanto said it has been producing plants that are tolerant to herbicides like Roundup since 1996. The first were soybeans and canola.

The company said that the only difference between genetically modified and other crops is a different protein introduced into the DNA. Says the company, using the term GM for genetically modified:

“When a new protein (not normally found in that plant or in other commonly consumed foods) is introduced into a plant, the safety of that protein does need to be addressed. It is standard practice to use animals to test any introduced proteins. Animal testing requires very high doses of the test substance to be given. These levels are, by design, many times higher than those which people would actually consume. In GM crops and foods derived from them, introduced proteins are usually present only in minute amounts. Because the levels of protein are so low, it is impossible to test high doses by feeding crops directly to animals. Instead, a purified version of the introduced protein is used in animal studies.”

The local organization notes that because corn is openly pollenated, a field of genetically modified corn can spread its DNA far and wide into other corn varieties.

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