Gullivers, Lilliputians and GM Food
Hemantha Withanage
Keywords:  Regulation, Genetic Engineering, Sri Lanka.
Correct citation: Withanange, H.. (2001), "Gullivers, Lilliputians and GM foods." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 48, p. 24.

In April 2001, the Sri Lanka Health Department, on the advice of its Food Advisory Committee, gazetted restrictions on the importation of genetically modified (GM) foods. Twenty-one products including a wide range of soy products (flour, textured vegetarian proteins, TVPs); corn products (flour, cereals); fresh tomatoes and processed tomato products; cheese, bakers yeast, beet sugar and microbiological cultures were mentioned.

The Sri Lankan Government annpounced that imports of food would have to be accompanied a certificate issued by an accredited laboratory confirming they did not contain GM ingredients. The Controller of Imports directed banks to warn their clients of these restrictions and to include them in letters of credit. These measures provoked immediate reaction from US government representatives and the WTO which resulted in the Sri Lankan government withdrawing the legislation.

This type of pressure is deeply offensive. It violates the right of all living organisms to select what they eat. Humans also shared this entitlement until the arrival of GM foods. This, as our experience in Sri Lanka shows, is sadly no longer the case.

In Sri Lanka most people are either Buddhist or Hindu and observe strict food codes. Buddhist's believe no animal should be killed. As vegetarians, many people in Sri Lanka find it unacceptable that GM foods may contain animal genes. The ethics of these practices, however, do not concern international GM food developers.

Consumers do not know much about GM food. Is it toxic? Can it cause allergies? What are its effects on human reproductive and immune systems? Products seem safe because they are nicely packaged under famous brand names. In Sri Lanka the Environment Foundation (EF) is running a public awareness campaign to alert consumers to these developments because there are no labeling provisions to enable consumer to identify GM products.

In a letter to the US Ambassador EF protested that Sri Lankans were being used as laboratory mice in a GM food test. His reply followed the official US line: "I believe strongly in the complete safety of GM foods. I also believe Sri Lanka will benefit from the continued development of GM food." The pro GMO lobbyists insist that GM foods will help alleviate hunger and make crops resistant to natural disasters. Australia, New Zealand, supported by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, agree.

Despite protests from environmental groups, national and international scientists, and members of the public, the Ministry of Health suspended restrictions on GM imports. No other reason was given than they supposedly challenged agreements with the WTO.

However, the WTO agreement states that any country can enact laws to protect its people under the precautionary principal. Although the WTO said that Sri Lanka must give 60 days notice before imposing restrictions, it never said they were illegal or against international trade agreements enforcing free and fair trade.

Despite this, the US Delegation to the Special Session of the Committee on Agriculture at WTO persisted. They demanded that risk assessments following the provisions of the Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary agreement of the WTO be carried out to show how the imported items would affect the health of consumers in Sri Lanka, the importing country. However, this requires scientific evidence that is not available.

Sri Lanka is a developing country. Its access to scientific research on GM foods is limited and must be obtained either from independent sources or the producers or importers of GM foods. Internationally there is also a lack of scientific evidence and technical support. Most of the information available on GM foods indicates there is a need for caution. They have not been proven safe. A recent article in the Washington Post ("EPA Rejects Biotech Corn as Human Food", July 28, 2001) reported that tests by the federal government on GM corn have not eliminated the possibility that it could cause allergic reactions. However, in the Gullivers and Lilliputians game with GM foods, Sri Lanka seems to have no right to use precautionary approaches although the WTO and Agenda 21 provide safeguards for consumers in importing country. Sri Lanka is vulnerable because it does not have biosafey legislation, and pressure and threats from importers that they will stop buying its tea are disastrous.

Under the WTO there is no stringent requirement that the importing country prove that GM products are unsafe. Article 5, para 6 states that "Members shall ensure that such measures are not more trade-restrictive than required to achieve their appropriate level of sanitary or phytosanitary protection, taking into account technical and economic feasibility.

Today, there are hundreds of food items with ingredients of unknown origin being imported into Sri Lanka. This raises serious questions about the ethics of a science that is allowed to do its field-tests on human beings. Issues of health, biodiversity, and religious and cultural practices are being ignored despite concerns expressed by Sri Lankan scientists, environmental groups, doctors and religious leaders. The question facing Sri Lanka now is whether it can assert itself in its struggle with the Gullivers of GM food industry?

Hermantha Withanange

Environmental Foundation Ltd / Friends of the Earth, Sri Lanka 3, Campbell Terrace Colombo 10, Sri Lanka.
Phone (+ 94) 1 697226; Fax (+ 94) 1 697226; E-mail hemanththa@ef.is.lk

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