Maize genetics debate pits science against emotions

A.M. Costa Rica file photo
The tassel is where the pollen is produced.

The latest environmental crusade is against genetically modified corn or, perhaps more correctly, against the international business giant Monsanto.

The crusade has a patriotic theme: To protect historical Costa Rican corn species from pollution from the pollen of a Monsanto import.

Lined up against the proposal to import and grow modified corn here also are expat supporters of organic foods, beekeepers, students, the Escuela de Nutrición of the Universidad de Costa Rica medical school, and a host of others. Many municipalities have issued prohibitions against genetically modified crops in their borders.

Yet, the Comisión Técnica Nacional de Bioseguridad has approved the request by a Monsanto subsidiary,  DPL Semillas S.A., to plant a small test patch to produce seeds for export. Opponents and the sole legislator from the left-leaning Frente Amplio have carried the case to the Sala IV constitutional court.

Ironically, genetically modified crops most likely are part of the daily diet here. Two researchers, including a Stanford University molecular biologist, report that there are 1.25 billion hectares (some 3.4 billion acres) planted around the globe with genetically modified drops.

The pair, Henry I. Miller of Stanford, and Graham Brookes, a UK economist, dismiss the idea that there is a genuine controversy over the safety of the crops and foods derived from them.

“. . . there is no credible evidence at all that genetically engineered crops or ingredients have disrupted a single ecosystem or caused health problems for consumers or farm workers.  In fact, the health risks associated with genetically engineered crops tend to be lower than those for conventional or, especially, organic crops, because of the lower levels of cancer- and birth defect-causing mycotoxins (in genetically engineered corn compared to organic corn in particular.)  Also, with the reduced need for spraying chemical pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops, the health risks – primarily poisonings — for farm workers and their families are significantly lower than for conventional crops.” The full article is HERE!

Another of the pair’s articles is HERE!

Central to the current argument against the modified corn is a recent French study that said that rats fed another type of Monsanto genetically modified corn developed tumors. The French study by Gilles-Eric Seralini and associates even turned up being praised late last year on a segment of the Mehmet Oz television show. Apparently the popular Oz never mentioned that nearly everyone in the scientific community has ripped the study.

In a display of unusual unity, the French national academies of agriculture, medicine, technology, sciences, pharmacy and veterinary sciences said that the study at the University of Caen was deeply flawed.

“Given the numerous gaps in methods and interpretation, the data presented in this article cannot challenge previous studies which have concluded that NK603 corn is harmless from the health point of view, as are, more generally, genetically modified plants that have been authorized for consumption by animals and humans,” said the statement from the French academies.

Still many European Union residents are suspicious of genetically modified crops. Some soybean farmers in Brazil have to grow their crops in regions far removed from genetically modified plants in order to export to Europe.

Some scientists questioned Seralini’s motives and noted he was an  anti-modified crops activist. In addition the rats used were of a type that routinely develops tumors.

In turn, the French scientist said many of his detractors are in the pay of Monsanto or are working on modified products themselves. He issued a long rebuttal in the journal that originally published his research. That is HERE!

Crops are modified to increase resistance against some diseases and to make it resistant to herbicides  so that corn fields can be sprayed to kill weeds without damaging the crop. Monsanto also makes Roundup, a popular herbicide. In the case of tomatoes, the modification provides longer shelf life. Peanuts also have been modified to resist pesticides.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculturenotes that modified corn is being used in many familiar foods, including corn meal and tortilla chips. In addition, corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup, which is used as a sweetener in many foods such as soft drinks and baked goods.

One strain of corn has been genetically modified by genetic material carried into it by the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. So it is called Bt corn. The genetic modification caused the corn plant to produce a toxin that killed the larva of the corn borer, the University of Kentucky notes. The modified corn has been available for two decades. So it is highly likely that when modified corn opponents gather to discuss strategy, they may be munching on imported corn chips or popcorn containing this modified strain. One source estimated that 85 percent of the U.S. corn harvest is from plants modified in some way.

Monsanto does not use a bacterium to modify the corn plant that is controversial here. The firm uses a virus. This is one of several techniques scientists use. Some concern has been voiced about the long-term effects of the virus.

A study released this week by the American Society of Agronomy said that Bt corn resists attack by corn rootworm, a pest that feeds on roots and can cause annual losses of up to $1 billion. Researchers Fred Below and Jason Haegele of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also found that this Bt trait has also boosted corn yields, in some cases beyond normal expectations. The report is HERE!

Below said Bt corn has healthier and more active roots than corn without the resistance trait. And a better root system can lead to improved function for the plant as a whole, according to a society news release.

Opponents to genetically modified corn stress the possibility that the Monsanto product would pollute the genome of what they call vintage Costa Rican strains. Since corn is pollenated by the air, no one can control where the pollen goes from the male tassels of each plant.

However, no one really knows which corn strains are the so-called vintage variety. One researcher estimated that there are at least 48 different strains, but there could be more. There has yet to be DNA studies of the various plant strains here.

So since corn or maize was developed in México or Central America the various strains have been interbreeding. The original human selective breeding with corn may have started 9,000 years ago.

The appeal to the constitutional court has effectively halted any action by the Monsanto subsidiary in planting the corn. Meanwhile, the opponents, who have little science on their side, will continue protests and marches.

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