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GMO law fight not over

Civil society excited but frustrated scientists pin hope on Museveni

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Ugandan civil society is celebrating a new law that seeks to regulate the development and application of biotechnology. But it is cautious celebration – until President Yoweri Museveni signs it into law.

The objective of the new regulatory framework is to ensure safe development and application of biotechnology. It will regulate research, development and general release of the controversial Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Parliament passed the law on Nov. 28 and on Dec.03, civil society organisations, farmers’ organisations, faith-based, women and trade policy organisations, consumer groups and environmentalists  issued a joint communiqué praising Parliament “for addressing their long standing concerns in the Bill.”

The Bill, which started out six years ago as the National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill, 2012 and was passed on October 04, 2017, as the Bio-safety Bill, 2017, had just jumped over another hurdle; imposed by President Yoweri Museveni who declined to assent to it until the legislators included a slew of additional safeguards and a name change. The passed form is now called the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, 2018.

Actually, the civil society consortium was celebrating the inclusion in the new law of several aspects that its framers had initially rejected but which are now included; some on Museveni’s insistence.

The civil society consortium says the previous bill threatened people’s right to food, right to a clean environment, sustainable development, sustainable diets and biodiversity of crop, animal, fisheries and insects and the growing economic market potential of organic products in the global market.

In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, on December 21, 2017, Museveni insisted on a change in the Bill’s title, patent rights on indigenous farming products, and sanctions for scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.

Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Food Rights Alliance, a Kampala-based non-profit, told The Independent on Dec. 07 that the current version of the law is a much better one than the one which President Museveni rejected in December, last year.

“We know that biotechnology is a risky science and all along we have been negotiating with our science friends telling them that this technology is hazardous and they have been responding saying we just have a phobia for science.”

“We needed safeguards and a redress mechanism such that Ugandans are aware that whoever is doing these things is going to be held accountable in case anything goes wrong.”

Charles Ogang, the immediate former president of the Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFF) told The Independent that the passing of the bill in the new form is good news because Ugandan farmers need a law that protects them from getting exposed to GMO products.

Some of the critical clauses in the law include the liability and redress mechanism clauses which stipulate that the advancement of modern biotechnology requires a precautionary approach in addressing safety issues. Within it is the strict liability provision which places legal liability on whoever introduces a GMO product for any damage caused as a result of the product or process of developing it.

The new law also covers “benefit sharing” which seeks to protects the rights of the communities because, the civil society say, Africa is facing an onslaught of GMO developers who take indigenous seed and patent them without recognizing the rights of farmers.

Civil society is also happy with the clause that calls for a comprehensive labelling and liability traceability system. This clause demands the promoter of GMO products to label them sufficiently; including their relevant traits and characteristics to enable traceability.

All genetically engineered material will also have to be labelled with the phrase: “Contains genetically engineered material,” to help consumers exercise their right to choose products free from GMOs.

A provision on co-existence of farming practices has also been included in the law. It essentially notes that a person who cultivates any GMO shall prevent contamination or co-mingling of GMO crop with indigenous crops.

Also, any person who keeps or owns genetically modified livestock shall prevent cross breeding between genetically modified and non-genetically modified livestock.

Finally, a provision that provides for an independent board known as the “National Genetic Engineering Council” which will be housed at the discretion of the president has also been welcomed since it ensures that promoters of GMOs are not the same people who will regulate the development of genetic engineering in the country.

Lawrence Akugizibwe, the vice chairperson of the Committee on Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries in Parliament told The Independent on Dec. 06 that the new law is meant to protect the country from irresponsible introduction, use, and production of GMO products.

Lee Denis Oguze, the MP for Maracha County in northwestern Uganda sat on the Science and Technology Committee that drafted the law which the president rejected last December.

Oguze who is now the Shadow Minister of Science, Innovation and Communication Technology wrote a minority report opposing it. On Dec.05, he told The Independent that he is happy because President Museveni possibly considered his minority report in rejecting it.

Oguze says he was mainly concerned that in Africa, farmers have for thousands of years depended on inherited seed yet biotechnology is capable of wiping out all the indigenous seeds.

“Biotechnology is a selfish technology in the sense that it goes against the social norms of Africans who believe in sharing,” he said.

Sad Ugandan scientists

But just like the law passed in October, last year, left civil society bitter; this one has also unsettled many scientists who over the last 20 years have been engaging in crop and animal improvement research and have always felt handicapped by a lack of an enabling law to test their innovations.

For years, they have been conducting confined field trials on bananas, maize, cotton, potatoes and rice at Namulonge and Kawanda research institutes with the hope that an enabling law would help Uganda join the four African countries—Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan—where the growing of genetically engineered crops is legal.

But, according to Clet Wandui Masiga, a conservation biologist and geneticist, the law in its current form might constrain Ugandan scientists. Masiga, a GMO developer, promoter and advocate, has been deeply involved in cobbling the GMO law and he wanted one that clearly liberates scientists.

He says he has reviewed GMO laws and associated regulations in 45 countries and, therefore, he says he has good knowledge of what a good biotechnology law is and what a bad law could be.

“We, at the moment, are trying to have a legal understanding of what this entire law means,” he told The Independent.

But according to him, a good law is one which regulates the industry; “it does not seek to promote and it does not constrain it.”

He adds: “In countries that have strict liability clauses, you will never find GMO work taking place, not even research”.

He told The Independent that the law which the president rejected was a much better version because it neither promoted nor stopped the science; all that was needed was to try to clarify a few issues that the president raised in his letter.

“What happened is that some people misunderstood the letter and instead saw it as an opportunity to add incriminating clauses.”

Dr. Michael Ssekaayi Mbogga, a lecturer at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Makerere University told The Independent that it is also wrong to reduce biotechnology to agriculture practices. “It is more than that,” he said, “We could use biotechnology to treat, for instance, diseases like Sickle cell anaemia.”

Dr. Ssekaayi says it is high time the country reclaimed its position in biotechnology research which it held 20 years ago but seems to have lost thanks to the damaging debate that has polarized scientists, politicians, civil society and the public over the six years.

Ogang also told The Independent that Ugandans should look at biotechnology with favour because the country’s food production techniques are not keeping pace with the rapidly growing population.

“We need to look at how best we can step up food production besides the conventional and indigenous methods if we are to cope with the food demands in the country.” 

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