“Frankenfoods”: A Sri Lankan Perspective on the Inevitable Rise of Genetically Modified Foods

Sri Lanka banned the imports of Genetically Modified (GM) food in 2001, becoming the first country in the world to do so. However, in 2006, the government passed an Extra-Ordinary Gazette to the Food Act of 1980, allowing GM food importation and in 2011 the government passed a National Policy on Biosafety which covers the import of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), i.e., GM food or GM crops. But do we really know what is and isn’t GM? Should we be worried? How important is the GMO issue for Sri Lanka? This article attempts to answer these questions by discussing the present scenario of GMOs in Sri Lanka in the global context.



What are GMOs?


Genetically Modified food (also known as GM food, biotech food, or transgenic food) are foods derived from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) through Genetically Modified crops. GMOs have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques.[i] These techniques include the cutting of genetic material from one species and being merged into another species in order to create a completely new animal or a plant. The process can, and often does, involve the crossing of the species barrier. Genes from humans, bacteria, viruses, plants, and animals are inserted into plants in order to give the crop qualities such as “extra protein,” or allowing them to stay “fresher for longer.” For example, many of these plants are engineered to produce their own pesticides so farmers won’t need to add pesticides to their crops. It can also be engineered to improve taste, texture, appearance, or to provide more specific nutrients.


The first GM food crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, was developed by the Californian Calgene company in 1992 (later acquired by Monstanto) using the transgenic method to improve its quality. Attempts to improve the quality of produce, goes back much further than the GM revolution of the early 1990s. Historically, farmers around the world selected the best looking plants and seeds, and saved them to plant for the next year. Plant breeding, as this is commonly called, became popular after it was revealed that crop plants could be artificially cross-pollinated to improve certain characteristics of the plant. With the development of the science of plant breeding in the 20th century, breeders found more efficient ways to create new and improved varieties of different crops to meet rising food demand.




Figure 1: Global GM Crop Scenario (1996-2011)

Source: Pocket K No. 16: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2011


Since 1996, the total area of land growing GM crops has rapidly expanded to reach nearly 158 million hectares in 2011. GM crops are mainly grown in the American region, where the USA accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s sowings of GM crops. Other main growers of GM crop include China, India, and Spain. The year 2011 showed a remarkable growth of 146 per cent in GM crop area, compared to 2010. Thus, it is fair to say that GM crops are the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. Year-on-year growth measured either in absolute hectares or by percentage, was higher in developing countries than in industrialized nations during the period 2010 – 2011. Soybean (HT) is the most dominant biotech crop, occupying 75.4 million hectares or 50 per cent of global biotech area, followed by HT cotton (more details here).


Countries of the world react differently to GMOs. While USA and some other developed countries encourage GMOs, many countries remain strictly against them. For instance, in 2002, Zambia returned a GM maize shipment from the US, which would have provided relief to 3 million of its citizens suffering from a deadly famine, with the then President Levy Mwanawasa famously referring to it as “poison”. Several EU countries (Poland, Hungary, Austria, France, etc.) have banned GMOs as well. In addition, some countries have only banned certain identified crops, for example GM eggplant in India and GM maize in Hungary and Austria. Meanwhile, countries like Serbia are now revising their laws to allow GM food imports but under strict regulations.



How do Sri Lankans perceive GMOs?


According to the study done by S.N. Senarath and R.P. Karunagoda in 2010 on ‘Consumer Attitudes towards Labeling of GM food in Sri Lanka’, it was revealed that most of the Sri Lankan consumers are not aware of GM foods, and yet perceive GM foods to be risky to human health. The majority of the consumers were of the view that GM foods should be labeled. Many were interested in getting a better knowledge of GM food products. It was also found that most consumers tend to read labels on food items, especially to verify the dates of manufacture, dates of expiry, etc., but rarely to check the ingredients.


Are there GMOs in Sri Lanka?


According to available data sources, Sri Lanka currently does not produce any GMOs. There is also little concrete evidence to show that Sri Lanka is importing any GMOs. Some products have been identified as potentially containing GM food items, but they are still in the testing process and final reports are yet to be released. An informed government representative stated that, “It is too early to say that those identified foods contain harmful GMOs as it is still in the testing procedure”.


Can we import GMOs?


According to the existing law, the importation of GM food/seed is not restricted. According to the Extra-Ordinary Gazette to the Food Act No. 26 of 1980 (passed in 2006), all importers have to make a declaration stating whether their consignment contains any GMOs. If the product does contain GM components, then it is required to be labeled as such. Hence, it becomes the consumer’s choice whether or not to accept products that may contain GMOs. Yet, to date, there aren’t any food items found in the Sri Lankan market with the GMO label.


How Does Sri Lanka Identify and Regulate GMOs?


Presently, GMOs in Sri Lanka are regulated by the Food Act and the National Policy on Biosafety. The Food Act is the main regulation which has been in operation so far, and the National Policy on Biosafety was introduced two years ago. While, the Food Act mainly focuses on GM food, the biosafety policy covers both GM food and GM seeds. Presently, the Ministry of Environment is drafting the National Biosafety Act, which will provide more protection to GMOs.


According to the Biosafety Policy, if an importer wants to bring in a product which might contain GMOs, the request must be submitted to the Environment Ministry. Thereafter, the Ministry will send the information to, and then select, the appropriate institution to conduct a Risk Assessment (Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, etc.) after taking in to consideration the type and nature of the item. The Risk Assessment report is then sent to the Biosafety Expert Consultation Committee, which is a Cabinet-approved committee representing all stakeholders in the field (health, agriculture, customs, legal, and environment, etc.). Once the committee approves, the importer can go ahead and import the item with the appropriate labelling. According to the Food Act, the Health Ministry’s Chief Food Authority will also send their reports to the Biosafety Expert Consultation Committee before they provide approvals to import GM food.


To date there have been very few risk assessment tests done in Sri Lanka. In most cases these tests are being carried out in private laboratories as government laboratories (Medical Research Institute, universities, and ministries’ labs, etc.) do not have the requisite facilities to conduct testing.


Will GMOs be Good for Sri Lanka?


From an economic perspective, the answer is “yes”. Despite an increasing scarcity of land and water, challenges from climate change and changing weather patterns productivity gains can be achieved with advanced technology. In fact, it could be said that these technologies are crucial for production increases. Whenever new crop technologies are adopted, the productivity increase will cause the crop’s supply curve to shift forward, leading to a positive change in producer and consumer surplus. Thus, GM crops could contribute significantly to food security and sustainable agricultural development.


Further, the development of GM technologies leads to public goods that can easily be reproduced. Thus, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) protection is needed as an incentive for private sector R&D investment. Further, income distribution and effects of new introductions will also depend on the institutional setting, including farmers’ access to suitable seed varieties, credit, information, and other input and output markets. More public and institutional support is needed to realize the benefits for the poor on a larger scale. The empirical evidence suggests that BT crops in particular, can have significant income-increasing and poverty-reducing effects. Furthermore, the economic results so far suggest that farmers in developing countries can benefit from transgenic crops. However, for the poorest of farmers in the poorest countries where institutional conditions are weak, ensuring access will remain a formidable challenge.


Being a developing country Sri Lanka does not have the advanced technology to produce GM food or GM seeds domestically. Thus, Sri Lanka needs to enter in to contractual agreements with the seed companies, albeit, in a very precautionary manner. Concerns that farmers should get clarified before the adoption of the technology includes, private contractual relations between farmers and seed companies; the environmental impacts of the technology; and the potential impacts of consumer concerns (both domestic and international) on the market for GM products.


Despite its economic potential, there is continued debate on the subject. In economic terms, new technology will increase production but, there is a good chance that there will be some negative impacts as well. Some fears includes the belief that GM seeds will create “super-weeds” or “superbugs” that, over time, become resistant to GM seeds and crops and to other herbicides and pesticides. The potential cross-pollination of GM seeds onto non-GM crops is also a concern to farmers, particularly those farmers that certify their crops as non-GM crops or organic. Another concern centering on the impacts of biotechnology is the possible harm that GM seeds and crops might pose to other, beneficial organisms (for an example, its impact on non-target arthropods in paddy fields).


Lastly, and most importantly, the effect of GM products on human health is not yet fully known. The largest threat to health could be the presence of unknown allergens.

What Needs to be Done?


Considering the benefits and the concerns raised, it is clear that neither the full-scale adoption nor the full-scale rejection of GMOs is a viable option. GM seeds are a revolutionary technology in the agricultural industry. The potential benefits of these seeds will be substantial. But, being a developing country Sri Lanka needs to strengthen its legal and institutional framework relating to GMOs before adopting the technology. There is also a growing need to improve public perceptions and enhance the social acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. Public awareness could be improved through the Ministry of Environment and the Consumers Affairs Authority. Increased awareness amongst researchers, universities, media, etc, is essential. As GM crops are associated with several potential market failures, the technology has to be heavily regulated. For instance, GM crops may be associated with environmental and health externalities, so biosafety and food safety regulations need to be in place. For consumers, the GM characteristic of food products is a credence attribute, indicating that labeling regulations can help to reduce transaction costs and overcome information asymmetry. Since the government laboratories do not have the facilities to test GMOs, it is essential that the country improves the standard of identified laboratories. At this stage, more public research and institutional support is needed to complement private sector efforts. Since Sri Lanka doesn’t have advanced technology to produce GMOs domestically, a robust intellectual property rights regime needs to be in place in order to enter into contractual agreements with GM seed companies. It is important for Sri Lanka to update its biosafety regulations and establish or revise its intellectual property legislations.

[i] Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a molecule encoding the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and many viruses.