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Debate on transgenics heats up
George Rodríguez
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Risks of genetically modified organisms divide governmental and legislative authorities.

The debate about a moratorium bill on the release and cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) — also known as transgenic products— is back at square one in Costa Rica.

After discussion of a draft dating back to 2013 the members of the congressional Committee on Agricultural Matters and Natural Resources could not reach, early this year, consensus on the text.

On February 18, with a 5-4 negative vote in the committee, the text was sent for plenary debate where, besides being the last priority of the more than 200 items in the Legislative Assembly agenda for this year, its chances are, at best, slim.

The strongest arguments against the rejected draft focused on the fact that it set no precise deadline for the moratorium, and left it to be in force until scientific consensus occurred.

In the first of its four articles, the first draft of the National Moratorium Law on the Release and Cultivation of Modified Living Organisms (Transgenic)  stated the measure “will be suspended when there is scientific certainty and consensus about the diverse risks that modified living organisms imply.”

Two articles down, the text warned that “scientific research with modified living organisms will be allowed only and exclusively in confined environments controlled through specific measures effectively limiting their contact with the external surroundings or their effect on the surroundings.”

“No field tests will be allowed,” the bill added.

Realizing the first draft’s outlook, the committee’s minority decided to promote a new text, and include in it some of their majority colleagues’ views.

The proposed six-article draft, to be debated by the Environment Committee, sets a 15-year limit to the moratorium.

It is a period “defined for establishing and strengthening an updated regulatory framework for biosecurity,” aimed at “implementing a National Biosecurity Framework,” the draft explains.

It also allows for “building technical, scientific and infrastructure capabilities for a correct risk evaluation of the GMO’s,” as well as “establishing base lines for biodiversity potentially affected by the GMO’s.”

The proposed law’s purpose is defined as “preventing the possible risks these activities could pose to human health or the environment and biological diversity or to animal, vegetal or water sanitation.”

The moratorium leaves out “the GMO’s destined to research in confined spaces,” those “for pharmaceutical and veterinarian use, which are regulated by international treaties and specific rules,” and “imported GMO’s and byproducts imported for human or animal consumption, or their processing.”

GMO free municipalities
The debate on the first draft included consultation with a wide scope of actors involved, from universities to the private and the agricultural sectors, as well as ministries, environmental organizations, scientific researchers, and local governments.

The moratorium is strongly backed by Costa Rica’s local governments, with some 90 percent of this Central American nation’s 81 municipalities having declared themselves “free of transgenic products”.

The first was Paraíso, 15 miles southeast of San José, the country’s capital, in 2005. By 2012 another seven had followed the example, and the following two years the figure skyrocketed to 74.

Paraíso responded to a campaign launched that year by the Central American Alliance for Biodiversity Protection. The original idea has since been enriched by several local governments which, besides rejecting GMO’s, promote, among other additional measures, agro ecology as well as the use of native seeds.

“I believe the moratorium has to be, even to hold forums, to hold talks, even to carry out research, because the experience has been really terrible in other friendly countries where transgenic seed has been used,” leftist legislator Zuray Carrillo, from the opposition party Broad Front, told Latinamerica Press. “The moratorium draft is very important, because actually, here in Costa Rica, most municipalities, some ninety percent, said ‘no’ to transgenic products,” she added.

According to “scientific studies — by the public University of Costa Rica, by several environmental non-governmental organizations that have investigated — and according to the experience in other countries, transgenic [products] are death, and, because of that, they’re not in favor of transgenic products,” added the legislator.

“So, the fact that municipalities — which are the local government, where there’s citizen participation — and environmental organizations have said ‘no’ to transgenic products should be respected,” she underlined, and added that “the Costa Rican population isn’t in favor of transgenic products.”

It is necessary a law?
Gerardo Vargas Rojas, a congressman of the former-ruling Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and one of the five members of the majority in the committee, believes there is no need for a law to declare the moratorium, stating that a decree issued by the government would be enough. Past administrations have decreed moratoriums, among other cases, against oil extraction, open-pit mining, incinerating solid waste, he told Latinamerica Press.

The Constitutional Chamber (or IV Chamber) of the Supreme Court of Justice, has also ruled in favor of decreeing moratoriums, he stated.

Vargas pointed out that his negative vote was neither against the moratorium nor in favor of transgenic products, but “against the draft as it was written.”

The legislator, a former head of PUSC, said the text was studied in detail by the committee, and “we summoned al the sectors that could say something on the issue — in favor and against —,” including scientist from the University of Costa Rica.

During the consultation period, “one day we’d come out concerned about (…) everything they would tell us that could happen with transgenic products, another day we’d come out very happy because another scientist — even from the same university — would give us assurance, for example. People from the University of Costa Rica came to speak for, and other people, against, people from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica, came to speak for and against, and so on,” he said.

In Vargas’ view “there’s no consensus” on the issue, not even within the government, “because it turns out that the Agriculture Minister [Luis Felipe Arauz] says he’s in favor of the project — so, in favor of the moratorium —, and the Foreign Trade Minister [Alexander Mora] said he’s against it. What’s happening?” asked Vargas. How do the Executive Branch and the official congressional bloc tell us to pass a draft in order to do it [implement the moratorium] through a bill if there’s no scientific, or social, or political, or even governmental consensus? So, what we told them was: ‘agree among yourselves’,” he said

“We approve the law [on GMO moratorium], and then, if we want to repeal the law because there is a consensus that transgenic products are not risky — although I don’t think there’s ever going to be consensus either in favor or against—, how do we go about it? Do we backtrack? If it’s through a decree, it’s much simpler a mechanism to correct, if there’s need to correct,” the congressman said.
—Latinamerica Press.


The Central American Alliance for Biodiversity Protection promotes the rescue of knowledge and native seeds. (Photo:
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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