The ‘Hundred-day programme’ pledged by President Maithripala Sirisena during his campaign officially ended one year ago with many major promises yet unfulfilled. Today, a year later, some of them, such as the Right to Information Act and the Code of Conduct for MPs, seem to have got off the ground but others such as Electoral Reform lags behind. Turning Sri Lanka into a toxin-free country (vasa-visa nethi ratak) was also an important election pledge. Interestingly, even as the presidential secretariat pushes this project to create a healthier citizenry, other forces seem intent to pump toxins into a largely uneducated consumer community.

The toxin-free country project was launched with a grand three-day exhibition and sale, a couple of months ago. A project jointly implemented by the Presidential Secretariat and the Ministry of Agriculture, following a concept developed by Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera and several others over a long period of time. It envisages a future Sri Lanka totally free of poisonous agro-chemicals or modified food including rice, vegetables and fruits.

The Secretariat and the Ministry at an initial briefing of media at the Government Information Department revealed that the government annually pays massive amount on imports of commodities which cannot be categorized as 100 per cent healthy. The officials in attendance shared some startling information, for example the country spends Rs. 60 billion on sugar, Rs. 50 billion on powdered milk and Rs. 80 billion on agro-toxins.

President Sirisena, opening the exhibition in March, vowed to introduce a better agricultural policy to strengthen the economy of the farming community in the country. He also spoke about the three-year national plan to make available toxin-free food to all and promised that the plan will make Sri Lanka a toxin-free green island. He was very clear about his intentions. However, it appears that there is resistance to its implementation, on the one hand and a strong commitment to policies and practices that go against the President’s stated sentiments.

Sri Lanka has been slow compared to other countries in tackling the intrusion of toxins in multiple forms. Bhutan, for example, resolved to become the first 100 per cent organic nation two years ago. But more than the delay, it is the contradictions that are troubling.

While the Presidential Secretariat and the Agriculture Ministry speak about and organized mega events about a toxin-free nation, sugary drinks are being registered in the country and companies are being given licences.

Researchers in Britain find that sugar is as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco. Sugar is an identified toxin which could cause countless illnesses like diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, allergies and even cancer. In our market, we have a number of sugary drink products from multinational soft drink brands as well as local carbonated drinks with almost all of them containing the equivalent of over five teaspoons of sugar per cup.

Sugar is but one example. What it illustrates is the problem of limiting the toxin-free debate to agriculture. It is known that many foods contain toxins. Some of these are naturally-occurring constituents, while others are formed as the result of handling or processing, especially due to value addition such as preservatives, flavourings and colours. Apparently, this aspect is not even considered by policy-makers. Thus, we have a situation where people can claim that the government’s toxin-free project is completely incoherent. The country’s pledge is for a ‘toxin-free nation’ and the national task should not be limited to close ended pathways.

Speaking to Nation, Rajarata University, Applied Science Faculty, Health Promotion, Senior Lecturer, Duminda Guruge said that the national task must have a course of action that is accepted by all and which is implemented as one nation. “When one ministry bans one substance, if another ministry imports it and sells or uses it, what is the result of this much talked project?” he queried.

He also added that this should be a joint process and there should be coherence from beginning to end. “Otherwise the project would be a clear-cut failure which leaves only big bills to settle with tax money paid by citizens of the country,” he added.
He elaborated that the idea should be properly communicated to all the relevant ministries and the institutions that come under them. “It is important to obtain the assistance of the intellectuals in the field as well as mass media to disseminate all relevant knowledge.”

It is of course very commendable that such a project has been launched and also that it has got the blessings of no less an institution than the Presidential Secretariat. However, it is not only about organic products and organic farming. To become toxin-free there has to be proper plans about how to manage wastewater for example. Those who are knowledgeable must be mobilized to educate the public about the use of unnecessary and harmful detergent chemicals, disinfectants and cosmetics. It should be a way of thinking that encourages you to leave your car in the garage and walk to the grocery store around the corner. It should also encourage the use of electricity produced by renewable sources.

Toxin-free is, therefore, a subject that should not be limited to agriculture but become a central part of all policy deliberations if it is to be a signature project of President Sirisena that has a better chance of success compared to politically-challenging projects such as electoral reform. Senior lecturer Guruge suggests that the ‘toxin-free’ should be a household concept, practically incorporated into our lifestyles.