Genetically modified organisms are a big story in India. More than 90 percent of India’s cotton crop, which is one of the largest in the world, is genetically modified for pest resistance.
But, nearby Sri Lanka doesn’t have a significant presence of GM crops or GM food at all. In fact, according to available government data, there aren’t any GM crops or products being produced or sold in the island. Many scientists think that changing climatic and economic conditions could make certain GM crops are desirable in the domestic market.That does not mean there couldn’t be in the future, though.
“Due to the persistent droughts experienced in the dry zone during the past few years, agricultural productivity in Sri Lanka has been negatively impacted,” said Janitha Liyanage, Head of the Food Science and Technology Department of the Sabaragamuwa University, in an interview.He said, he sees a way forward with genetic engineering.
“Introduction of crop species produced by (genetic engineering) with increased yield and with resistance to environmental stresses, as well as pest and weed resistance, may be an ideal solution, provided that they are implemented in a proper manner.”
In an attempt to ensure the safe introduction of GMOs in Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, launched the National Bio-safety Framework Project in March.
The project’s aim is to set up screening and testing procedures to analyze the risks to human health and the surrounding environment of any GMO brought into Sri Lanka.
“Before we put it on the market, it must be safe and when it makes it to the market, we must tell people what it is,” said Shanaka Gunawardena, the Manager of the new Bio-safety Project.
Screening for safety
Right now, the project is operating from a small office in the Environment Ministry in Battaramulla. In a site visit last week, many boxes were still unpacked, while the staff was rushing through various meetings between different Ministries and stakeholders.
They are starting a two-year journey to try to identify, assess and control the rollout of any GMO coming into the country. “By the end of 2020, we will have everything running,” Gunawardena said. Just like other technologies, biotechnology and bio-safety need to go hand-in-hand, he argued. “Say you develop a vehicle,” he said. “You can’t just make it and then immediately go ask people to drive it.”
Some larger countries, such as the United States, have already been growing GM crops for years.Put simply, a GMO, or genetically modified organism, is an animal or plant whose genetic material has been manipulated to express certain traits through genetic engineering techniques.
The type of GM cotton grown in India for example, has been engineered to produce certain toxins to deter pests such as bollworm. In the US, much of the soybean crop is herbicide-tolerant.
But critics consistently warn of the unintended side effects of genetic engineering. GM crops can contaminate surrounding crops or wild plant varieties, while some studies have shown eating GM food can negatively affect human health.
Sri Lanka has always taken a cautious approach in allowing GMOs to come into the country. In 2000, it signed the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement to ensure the safe handling of GMOs. But the country did not adopt it until 2004.
Movement on bio-safety has been slow since. Though Parliament amended the Food Act in 2006 to require labeling of GMOs being sold to the public, the capacity to adequately detect and analyze the risk of such products was never developed, according to Gunawardene.
Under the law, “if you are bringing GM food products, you must go through the food authority and label it,” he said. The cutoff for labeling something as GM is, if more than 0.5 percent of its contents come from GM ingredients.
But Gunawardene said the current technology available can only detect GM contents in a product if it’s above 10 percent.
“You can come along with the regulation, but if you don’t have the capacity, how are you going to regulate that,” he asked.
The result is that there’s a lot of uncertainty about the presence of GMOs in the country. The Environment Ministry hired the genetics lab GeneTech to test basic consumer products such as butter, ketchup, and cereal for GMOs in 2009, 2011 and 2014. Nothing showed up, but Gunawardene warned that it does not mean there might be small amounts of GMO ingredients in other products the tests had missed.
So, after a long “dead period” in legislation, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization proposed lending technical assistance to the government to develop a robust risk assessment programme, Gunawardene said.
Along with financial support from the Global Environment Facility, new regulations are now going through the legal draftsman’s office to provide the Environment Ministry the power to identify and assess any GMOs imported into or developed in the country.
Under the new proposed laws, “if someone wants to bring a (GMO) for any reason, they must send an application to the environment ministry,” he said.
The Ministry will then look at the application, and forward it to the relevant sectoral authority, such as the Agriculture Department or Ministry of Health. That authority has to do a full risk assessment, using the expertise of the Bio-safety Project and then provide a public report and recommendation on the product.
Lab tests will be performed at entry points, such as the plant quarantine at Katunayake Airport, Gunawardene said.
Gunawardene hopes the new project can calm people’s fears about GM products and ensure safe implementation for farmers or importers looking to introduce GMOs. Research shows that many Sri Lankans are already wary about buying GM food.
A 2012 study from the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture at the University of Peradeniya, found that in a survey, nearly 70 percent of the respondents felt that GM foods were a risk to health.
57 percent of respondents said, they would never buy a GM product, while 93 percent felt that labeling GM food as such was “very important.”
“The consumer should be given the choice,” said Jagath Gunawardene, an environmental lawyer independent from the bio-safety project. The consumer should be given the information and choice, though it might hurt the profits of some companies.”
Gunawardene said, he suspects that the labeling requirement, as well as a previous blanket ban on the import of GMOs, has discouraged companies from importing them to Sri Lanka.
Shanaka Gunawardene, of the National Bio-safety Project said, he hopes the new bio-safety framework will encourage domestic innovation with genetic engineering.
Citing ongoing experiments with drought-resistant rice at the University of Colombo, “currently, it’s at a stalemate,” he said. “They tell us that (they) cannot proceed, because they don’t know what to do next.” Without a safety measure, there’s no clear next step in taking the product to market. And researchers here seem united in the opinion that growing GM crops will be necessary in the future.
“The United Nations forecasts that the global population will increase from 7.2 billion today to 8.1 billion in 2025, with most of the growth taking place in developing countries,” said Liyanage, of the Sabaragamuwa University Food Science and Technology Department.
“In this context, GMOs have the potential to (increase yields) and (reduce) reliance upon synthetic pesticides and herbicides,” he said. That is, “if the challenges regarding safety testing, regulation, policies, traceability and food labeling are properly addressed,” he added.
In his office in Battaramulla, Gunawardene sketched a worst-case scenario for his programme: “Imagine we find some farmer in a certain place, and all the native varieties around it are just dying, because of some GM crop that wasn’t (screened),” he said. “Then it will be too late,” he said. It’s their job now to make sure that doesn’t happen.