Two reasons to ban modified crops

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

This morning’s AM Costa Rica published an editorial on page one, arguing that no scientific literature has shown that genetically engineered crops harm human or animal health, and that, therefore, given current and potential advantages, such as herbicide resistance and increased yield, their consumption and planting should be permitted here.  I agree with the first part of your position, in that I’m unaware of published, refereed, scientific papers demonstrating a high incidence or probability of harm to human and/or animal health.  However, there are two reasons that I, as an ecologist, support the continued ban prohibiting planting of transgenic crops here.  The first is for ecological and the second for social reasons.

A risk of ecological harm through planting of transgenic crops here, although not necessarily the only one, is the possibility, some argue the probability, that such crops growing here could contaminate the genetic pool of traditional crops, and of more ecological importance for me, the possibility that the genetic pools of the evolutionary precursors of common food crops here be contaminated with the genes of transgenic crops, principally through the pollination of the crop progenitors by pollen from transgenic crops.

Through modern agricultural history, going back to the late 19th century, occasional massive crop failures have occurred because pathogens have become established in major crops, such as wheat, that were widely planted using the same crop variety over very wide areas.  Through traditional crop breeding, crop geneticists, or breeders, have incorporated new genes from evolutionary progenitor species that are resistant to the pathogens, conferring that pest resistance to new crop varieties and restoring crop production.

Other potential beneficial genetic attributes of crop progenitor species, in addition to pest resistance, such as drought tolerance, wet soil or high water table tolerance, salt tolerance, and possibly many others, are often promised by advocates of transgenic crops, and would also be lost if the gene pools of crop progenitor species are “polluted” with transgenic crop pollen.

Among the highest area of concern are the areas in central and southern Mexico where corn or maiz evolved and where maiz progenitor species still exist in the wild.  Mexico and Guatemala are the origin of most commercial squash species, so progenitor species of squash would also be threatened by planting there of transgenic squash.  A conceptually simple solution to pollen pollution of progenitor crop species, which I believe the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, and the system of  International Agricultural Research Centers should adopt, as well as nations such as Costa Rica and the United States, would be to require that all transgenic crops produce only sterile pollen, or no pollen.  Of course, since a crop, such as corn, that requires pollination to produce its seed (in the case of corn, largely wind-pollinated), would produce none of the desired product.

The social reason against permitting planting of transgenic crops here is because the companies that developed the transgenic varieties and that produce the seed commercially for growing them require the farmer buying seed for planting to sign a legally binding contract that prohibits the farmer from using part of the crop as seed for planting in subsequent years or crop cycles.

So the farmer has to purchase new seed every year for his annual crop.  That’s good for Monsanto and the other transgenic seed vendors, but not for the farmers.  In Costa Rica, as well as many parts of the world, even in parts of the U.S., farmers traditionally save part of their crop as seed in the following year, or following crop cycle.  Widespread use of transgenic crops here might greatly produce the productivity of areas planted with the herbicide-resistant, drought tolerance, or other beneficial crop attribute conferred by the crop plant’s genetic manipulation.

However, the high cost of such seed, while possibly paying for itself through higher yields, would probably limit the farmers using them to wealthy landowners and industrial producers.  Mini-fundio traditional farmers would likely be put out of the marketplace by being evermore less-competitive with the big farms.  And its very possible, if not likely, that their traditional seed gene pool would be contaminated by transgenic pollen from surrounding large farms, so they might be prohibited from even producing a subsistence crop.  Many small-scale farmers without access to lawyers might buy transgenic seed, but not understand their risk in using part of their crop for seed the following year or crop cycle, and face legal liability and possibly loss of their patrimony as a result.  It’s possible that the Asamblea Legislativa could pass a law prohibiting such seed contracts, but Monsanto, Cargill, and other vendors would likely pressure the U.S. to litigate its implementation under the terms of the Central America and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization policies.

​ I don’t support a Costa Rican ban on human or animal consumption of genetically modified crops here, due principally because there’s no scientifically sound proof that they harm human or animal health, but also because I like those corn-based snacks too much.  You’re correct that a negative can’t be proven.  But Costa Rica could be a leader in raising the issue of the risk to gene pools of crop progenitor species and the social issues of legal restrictions on transgenic crop seed use.

Thank you for broadening the discussion on genetically modified crops by printing my views.

Loren B. Ford
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