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Labelling legislation for genetically modified food, Sri Lanka


Thanks to a legal case filed by the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and the engagement of several civil society actors, Sri Lanka has regulated the labeling legislations for genetically modified foods since January 2007. Following the regulation, it is now mandatory for importers and local manufacturers of GM foods to label these products. According to the law, all GM food items must now carry a prominent sticker informing that the product contains GM materials, giving the consumer the freedom of choice. Defaulters of this law have to face a six-month jail term or a Rs. 10,000 fine, or both, under the Food Act, No. 26 of 1980 [1].

However, following the statement of the Centre for Environmental Justice itself, the Health Officials or the Consumer Affairs Authority have failed to test and assure that the foods are GM free or labeled. This is the reason why the CEJ is carrying on a campaign to sensitize Sri Lankan citizens regarding the hazards of GMO foods. Moreover CEJ complains that the US embassy is working together with the National Science Foundation to promote GM field tests in Sri Lanka [2].

As it happens in other countries, the ban of GMO's is facing several problems due to the oppositions carried out by big corporations, supported by the policies of several governments and international institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO etc.) In 2001, when Sri Lanka proposed to ban the importation of genetically modified foods, preservatives and additives, Mr. Weyland Beeghly, Agricultural Counselor for the US Embassy, speaking at a press conference, said that there is no scientific evidence to justify Sri Lanka’s ban. He said that only 4 per cent of US imports to Sri Lanka would be affected and asserted that wheat, one of the biggest imports from that country, is not genetically modified. In reaction to Beeghly’s statements, the Environmental Foundation Limited condemned the US interference on Sri Lanka's policies and in a letter addressed to George W. Bush has urged the United States not to dump untested genetically modified food in Sri Lanka [3].

When it comes to GMO's many decision makers, scientists and local EJO's question the lack of transparency and information accessible by the public. EFL and CEJ believe that there is no way in which the public can obtain first hand information, since many of the research studies done in the area are incomplete; research which shows the negative effects is being kept secret; and food tests are taking a long time, while there is no sufficient time between the creation of food and the release of them into the market [4].

Recently, grassroots farmers’ organizations in Sri Lanka have joined forces with environmental activists, scientists and other concerned citizens to mobilize against a new Seed Act which they say will undermine farmers’ rights and threaten biodiversity. The draft ‘Seed and Planting Material Act’ under consideration by the government will, campaigners say, benefit the seed industry, controlled by big transnational corporations, at the expense of the country’s small-scale farmers who are the mainstay of the rural economy.

Grassroots organizations remark that the dominant legislation today relating to seed violates democratic processes.

Sarath Fernando, adviser and founding member of MONLAR (the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform) denounces that ‘An arsenal of legal instruments is steadily being invented and imposed that criminalize age-old farmers’ seed breeding, seed saving and seed sharing. And this arsenal is being shaped by the handful of corporations who first introduced toxic chemicals into agriculture, and are now controlling the seed through genetic engineering and patents.’ [5].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Labelling legislation for genetically modified food, Sri Lanka
Country:Sri Lanka

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Specific commodities:Coffee
Fruits and Vegetables
GMO food and products
Biological resources

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

In May 2005, the Centre for Environmental Justice, filed its writ application No.1380/06, Hemantha Withanage Vs Consumer Affairs Authority and others. Consequently, the Government of Sri Lanka finally approved a GM food labeling legislation (Gazette Ex. Ordinary. 1456/22, 3rd August 2006) on August 2006, making it mandatory for importers and local manufacturers of GM foods to label their products in the future.

The mentioned law requires all GM food items to carry a prominent sticker informing that the product contains GM materials, giving the consumer the freedom of choice. Defaulters of this law will have to face a six-month jail term or a Rs. 10,000 fine or both under the Food Act, No. 26 of 1980.

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 regulation 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. [6]

Level of Investment:unknown
Affected Population:whole country
Start of the conflict:2000
Company names or state enterprises:Monsanto Corporation (Monsanto Co) from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine

Consumer Affairs Authority

Government of Sri Lanka
International and Finance InstitutionsWorld Trade Organisation (WTO)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)

Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL)

MONLAR (the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform)

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Boycotts of companies-products

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Genetic contamination
Potential: Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsUncertain impacts of GMO crops on ecosystems
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Potential: Occupational disease and accidents, Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures


Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Development of alternatives:To ban import and production of GMO foods empowering traditional agriculture.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Since January 2007, Sri Lanka regulated the labelling legislations for the genetically modified foods. However, following the statement of the Centre for Environmental Justice, the Health Officials or the Consumer Affairs Authority have failed to test and assure that food items are either GM free or labelled.

Sources and Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Seed and Planting Material Act

EU Regulation 1829/2003

Food Act, No. 26 of 1980

National Policy on Biosafety, 2005

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Navdanya, 2013. The law of the seed.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[2] Ejustice report Volume 1 Issue 3, APRIL 2014. Ask why Authorities keep you dark on GM's food

[4] Article published on Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide web site: EFL Position on Genetically Modified Food ban In Sri Lanka. August 2001

[3] News paper article from 'The Island': US told not to dump untested GM food in Sri Lanka. By Nadeera Seneviratne, 2001

[5] Article published on New Internationalist web site: Sri Lankan farmers resist new seed law. By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya. 2014

[1] Article published on CEJ blog. Sri Lanka- Law to label GM foods gazetted. Posted by Hemantha Withanage on August 2006

[6] Online article from 'The Island' (4/02/2013). Frankenfoods: A Sri Lankan Perspective of the Inevitable Rise of Genetically Modified Foods. By Dilani Hirimuthugodage. (accessed 22/06/2015)

Other documents

Meta information

Contributor:Centre for Environmental Justice (Colombo, Sri Lanka) and Paola Camisani (EJOLT team, Barcelona)
Last update15/07/2015