Sri Lanka’s food fight

In a pioneering move the Sri Lankan Government has banned the import of genetically modified foods. Under the new rules importers of food are required to produce a certificate ‘from an accredited laboratory or competent government authority certifying that the food product does not contain any material or ingredient that has been subjected to genetic modification’.

Hard on the heels of the ban, which came into effect 1 May 2001, McDonalds in Sri Lanka suspended cheese imports from Aotearoa/New Zealand which were destined for its burgers.

Shashi Mohotti, general manager of McDonalds in the capital, Colombo, said they were ‘trying to comply with government regulations as a responsible company’.

The regulations were hailed by environmentalists and health activists as a positive move to safeguard the integrity of the country’s food supply and public health, but drew mixed reactions from importers who have had to comply with the new rules.

Hemantha Perera of CPC Lanka Ltd, manufacturers and distributors of a wide range of canned and bottled foods complains: ‘We import tomato paste from suppliers in China, who say it requires more time, money and documentation to produce the certificate.’

In contrast, Shantha Perera, Deputy General Manager for the state controlled Co-operative Wholesale Establishment (CWE) – the biggest single importer of food to Sri Lanka – said: ‘We had no problems. The suppliers are anxious to negotiate their Letters of Credit, so they get the required certificates from the agriculture or health departments of their countries, or labs authorized by their governments.’

At the moment importers can thank the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a brief respite. According to WTO rules the Sri Lankan administration is required to give 60 days’ notice of the ban, which has now been temporarily lifted. But S Nagiah, Sri Lanka’s Chief Inspector of Food and Drugs, says there will be no change in overall policy. ‘A lot of people are complying and there is a good voluntary response,’ he reports. The tentative date for re-imposition of the ban is 1 September 2001.

Some ask why Sri Lanka has made such a bold move in banning GM food. Consumers in Western countries have not managed to persuade their governments of the wisdom of labeling, let alone banning the controversial produce.

World trade rules are part of the explanation for this failure. The US has warned that European attempts to label GM foods discriminate unfairly against its agricultural sector, as the world’s leading producer of GM crops. This has the potential to become a major, protracted and damaging trade dispute on both sides.

The US is not just sending warning signals to the EU. The agricultural counsellor to the US embassy in New Delhi, Weyland Beeghly, heavily criticized Sri Lanka’s move on a recent visit to Colombo. He told reporters that GM foods posed no serious health hazard and called for scientific evidence to prove it was harmful.

Meanwhile Hemantha Vithanage, Sri Lankan environmental scientist and Executive Director of the Environmental Foundation, says that labeling is not an acceptable alternative to an outright ban in the country. Many argue that as these foods have not yet been adequately tested, the so-called precautionary principle should be used. ‘As a poor country we have to safeguard our people. If the US says it is not harmful, it is up to them to show it,’ says Vithanage.

New Internationalist issue 337 magazine cover This article is from the August 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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