Sri Lanka: Lobbying puts ban on GE food at risk

by Feizal Samath

Colombo, 27 Aug 2001 (IPS) - Four months ago, Sri Lankan environmentalists were a jubilant lot. Now, they are disappointed as a landmark ban on genetically engineered (GE) foods from 1 September may be deferred due to protests from western governments and the private sector here.

One of the fresh concerns raised in the implementation of the ban is whether it would affect food aid like wheat flour from the US.

The ban was to have been effective from 1 May, but this was put off to September as local companies wanted time to get GE-free certification on imported foods like cheese and soya products, and to delay shipments.

“The decision in May was a landmark one and we completely backed the government on this,” says Hemantha Vithanage, an environmental scientist and executive director of the Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL), expressing disappointment in the then postponement.

But in a 22 August letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the EFL expressed concern about a new official committee that had been appointed by Health Minister John Seneviratne to look into the ban. “We understand the aim of this committee is to move towards lifting the ban, which was so courageously promulgated by the Food Advisory Committee (FAC) of the health ministry.”

EFL appealed to the president not to lift the ban on one of the most progressive GE-free legislative measures in the world, saying millions of farmers, consumers and peoples’ organisations working for safe food around the world were adamantly opposed to the genetic modification of food, its development and commercialisation.

While most countries ordered the labelling of food items to ensure they are GE-free, Sri Lanka went further in its decision and said it was banning all types of GE foods.

As the effectivity date of the ban nears, green groups have accused western governments, including the US, of putting pressure on Sri Lanka to abandon the ban. But Stephen Holgate, chief US spokesperson in Colombo and director of the US Information Service, denied the charges and said the US had only raised some concerns about the implementation of the regulation.

“At no time did we oppose the ban. Our concerns were based on the fact that there is no evidence,” he said. In May however, Weyland Beeghly, a trade counsellor attached to the US embassy in India, told reporters in Colombo that the ban was unwarranted.

He denied what he called speculative reports that the US was testing this “very risky” GE technology on poor populations in developing countries. “More than one third of the shelf space of any supermarket in the US is occupied by foods obtained by using biotechnology,” he pointed out.

Thilak Ranaviraja, the civil servant in charge of the health ministry, also agreed that the US had not opposed the ban. He said no decision has been taken to revoke the ban, except that a new committee was reviewing the move before its implementation on 1 September. “We have received a lot of representations for and against the ban and hence we need to be cautious.”

Ranaviraja said the US government was among countries that had sought clarification on the Sri Lankan government’s ban, while some other countries, concerned with the issue, did not make written comments.

“One of the issues we need to look at is whether the ban would impact on a lot of food aid that we get from donor countries and international organisations,” he said, adding that the government did not want to antagonise “friendly” countries without proper investigation before enforcing the ban.

He said the committee’s findings were unlikely to be ready by September.

EFL said that though GE foods are still untested, it has not been proven safe for consumption. “It is deplorable that the government is willing to put economic gain before the health of the nation and has succumbed to the pressures of both international and local parties who have vested interests in this matter,” said Withanage in a letter to the president.

Withanage said a request from the Chamber of Commerce, the country’s biggest chamber group, to the health ministry to defer the ban until 2004 was also “disconcerting”. The chamber wrote to the ministry on 17 August, saying that Sri Lanka should follow the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) - a joint body of the World Health Organisation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation)- which is promulgating guidelines and standards for GM foods by end-2003 for implementation in 2004.

The health ministry in May gazetted a list of 21 items that were to be banned unless proved that they are not GE foods. The list included a range of soya foods including soya milk, soya bean, soy sauce, soya nuggets or textured vegetable protein (TVP) - which has fast become a substitute for beef among health-conscious consumers -, other soya-based products, tomato sauce, tomato paste and tomato-based products. The US is a major exporter of soya, a good amount of which are now genetically modified.

The health ministry said such foods would be allowed into the country only after a GE-free certificate is provided. Importers of the list of restricted items were asked to clear the food by a competent authority in the producing country.

Private sector officials and environmentalists said Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia to resort to a ban on GE foods and probably among the few in the world that had taken this move instead of the labelling process that is prevalent in many countries.

“There was going to be a lot of confusion over the ban,” said S. Balachandran, a council member of the National Chamber of Commerce. “We repeatedly told the government not to rush into this legislation and instead resort to labelling measures.”

Balachandran noted that the company that he worked for, Millers Ltd, had however obtained the necessary GE-free certification for the import of Kraft cheese from Australia. “We have got certifications of our products from Australia but such certificates have been refused from the United States where we import some products,” he added.

The debate over GE foods has been raging for over two years in Sri Lanka and follows a worldwide controversy over GE food, which contains ingredients that have been genetically modified for certain qualities, from longer shelf life to flavour.

In fact, as early as more than 16 months ago, there was a move by the government to enforce a ban on GE foods in the country. “Yes, in fact, we placed an advertisement in the newspapers informing the trade of a possible ban on genetically engineered food imports,” said S. Nagiah, chief food inspector of the health ministry.

Sri Lanka decided to enforce a ban instead of implementing GE-free labelling of food because it is a major food importer, unlike other Asian or European countries. “For instance, India or Britain doesn’t import as much food as we do.  We need to take more precautions than the West and we have a responsibility to the consumer,” the health ministry’s food chief noted.

Nagiah said the decision to enforce a ban was taken after several months of discussion, debate and deliberation. “There may be little or no evidence to show the impact of GE foods on humans, but genetic engineering is a dangerous thing.

If we allow a GE seed to invade our local species, it could be disastrous.” – SUNS4957

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