The Embassy of the United States of America sponsored a seven-day biotechnology workshop from September 27 – October 5 in Colombo.
The workshop was conducted by Genetech, a leading private sector biotech company, and was addressed to scientists in research agencies and universities in the country who are involved in agricultural research into genetically modified (GM) crops. The objective of the workshop was to demonstrate the transfer of the technology from research to field application. The twenty scientists selected for the conference also learned the rigorous testing and approval process GM crops undergo in the U.S. before they are available for commercial application. Speakers included a Senior Lecturer from the University of Colombo who has developed a GM rice variety, other Senior Lecturers from the University, Genetech staff and an Assistant Professor who was flown in for the conference from Michigan State University.
According to Ken Kero-Mentz, the Embassy’s Economic Officer, the workshop “brought together some of the best minds in agricultural research in the country. While exporting agriculture products to Sri Lanka – including GM products – is one of our commercial objectives, the Sri Lankan market is obviously a small one for the United States. More importantly, when we host events like this, we hope that the information provided will eventually reach down and assist in the development of rural farmers by improving yields and productivity and by combating pests and disease. We firmly believe biotechnology is one of the tools that could effectively address these issues.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also previously trained local scientist and regulators on biotechnology and biosafety in collaboration with Michigan State University.
One of the participants commented that this program “helped us rethink how biotechnology could be applied in a local perspective. We hope to further study areas where Sri Lankan agriculture could benefit from using biotechnology.” Another shared her experience of a recent biotech regulators program in the U.S. She explained the rigorous testing and approval regulations that are administered by three U.S. agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, Food & Drug Authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) for approval of GM crops. She stated that “U.S. companies must provide a large amount of information to the regulators and companies are extremely careful as any mistake could result in fines which would bankrupt the company.” The approval process for GM crops in the U.S. can take up to ten years.
The Embassy hopes that regular discussions between regulators and scientists take place to spur efforts to develop appropriate crops and the required biosafety framework in order to proceed with the application of biotechnology in local agriculture.