There are many native varieties for that valuable grain

Last July 25 President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a decree establishing corn as a cultural heritage of the nation.

Environmentalists saw this as a way of protecting the native species. But Thursday the Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud pointed out that there are between 80 and 100 varieties of local corn due to the cross pollination that has gone on for centuries.

The decree was important because of its cultural focus, according to Fernando González, an anthropologist with the ministry’s Centro de Investigación y Conservación del Patrimonio Cultural. He noted that Costa Rica is geographically positioned to be a crossroads between North and South America. And that holds true for the varieties of corn, too, he said, according to a ministry summary.

The presidential decree did not seek to identify the heritage varieties but it was far broader than just the corn grain. It covered native and local traditions, the uses, the knowledge, the flavors and the colors associated with corn. Among these, of course, would be the traditional ways to prepare the grain, such as the mano and metate that grind it into flour and other grinding methods still used by the native peoples.

Worldwide there appears to be about 300 varieties of corn. The genome of one variety was sequenced in 2009, and researchers found that its genetic structure is nearly as big as that of a human.

The corn genome is a hodgepodge of some 32,000 genes crammed into just 10 chromosomes, according to researchers at the The Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. In comparison, humans have 20,000 genes dispersed among 23 chromosomes, the researchers said..

Trying to identify genetically the heritage varieties in Costa Rica might be expensive. The 2009 effort at the Washington University School of Medicine cost $29.5 million and took four years and 150 scientists. The variety was B73, one that is familiar to many U.S. farmers.

Considering that as new varieties are developed elsewhere and that Costa Rican farmers may import then, keeping the existing varieties constant will be a problem. Corn is pollinated through the air.

The ministry noted that corn rises to the level of a religious object because both the Bribri and the  Cabécare native cultures believe that the god Sibú

A Bribri woman prepares corn flour a traditional way.

A Bribri woman prepares corn flour a traditional way.

created corn and made the grains in many colors to represent different clans.

Such respect for corn is not limited to the native cultures. Each year sees the lengthy festival of   Nuestra Señorita Virgen de Guadalupe that is based on corn or maize.  The event runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 12 and already has been declared an intangible part of the cultural heritage of the country by the government.

Cooks use pre-Columbian metates and manos to grind the corn and then use Spanish-era techniques to cook it. They make chicheme, a traditional sweet corn drink; atol, another traditional drink, and maíz pujagua, a dish made from purple corn

Now at the advent of the rainy season is a good time to study corn because this is the traditional planting time. The current dry weather may have an impact on the harvest, but there is plenty of imported corn. Generally corn needs from 90 to 110 days to mature and produce edible ears. Sometimes the ears are left on the stalk to dry, although forest animals also like corn.

The plants that are grown today are offspring of wild grasses that may have been manipulated thousands of years ago.

Environmentalists see the Solís decree as prohibiting the planting of genetically modified corn in Costa Rica. The decree says nothing about that. The Sala IV constitutional court might. The court held a hearing Thursday in which plaintiffs seek to overturn the decision by the Comisión Técnica Nacional de Bioseguridad to allow Monsanto Co. to plant a small test plot. Opponents argue that a provision of the law that protects corporate secrets is unconstitutional. They also say that an environmental impact statement is required. There was no decision Thursday by the magistrates.

Monsanto has produced a corn that is resistant to certain herbicides. That means the farmer just has to spray and not hoe the corn rows to eliminate weeds. The resistant corn also produces pollen that may end up in seeds from other plots unless Monsanto clips the tassels.

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