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GMO research: Lack of law complicates it

“The only reason we continue to fund GM cassava research in Uganda is because they (scientists) have had the best research in the entire world on the crop and so it feels bad to simply drop them,” he said.

“At the same time, the donor keeps on saying ‘how do you continue to invest in a country in which the farmers will never see the value?’ So, there’s that conflicting view going on.”

Dr. Kiggundu said the country’s failure to enact the biotechnology law denies the research organisation research funding, job creation and investors.

He says each crop under research runs at cost of approximately US$150,000 per annum, though some crops such as bananas receive funding for more than one trait under investigation.

“This funding also supports capacity building of our young scientists while senior scientists get opportunities for networking internationally,” Dr. Kiggundu said, adding that infrastructural developments in the research stations and job creation to people like lab technicians and drivers normally gets a huge boost during project implementation.

He said direct government funding towards research in any sector globally is dwindling because it is expensive and risky. He said many countries in the west have left research in the hands of the private sector.

“Even us here (Uganda), we should learn to build our research systems based on toping a little bit of government funding and also attract funding from the private sector for other activities.

This will keep our research systems going, growing the structures and we progress,” he said. Dr. Kiggundu said for now, the GM research on cassava being carried out in Uganda is set to benefit other countries on the African continent and beyond.

“In the meantime, some of the promising lines we selected in Uganda have been transferred to Rwanda and trials there started in December last year,” he said. “In addition, some of the cassava that we have been working on with our Kenyan counterparts have been approved in Kenya for open cultivation, paving the way for commercialisation. It therefore becomes very difficult to convince a funder to invest in Uganda yet progress is going on elsewhere.”

Kiggundu said the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is also hatching a new plan to carry out similar GM cassava research in Malawi and Mozambique, the countries seen to be progressing well with the regulatory frameworks to ensure that the final products will reach farmers.

Uganda’s involvement in research and development of genetically engineered crops started in 2003, with President Yoweri Museveni launching the first multi-million biotech lab at NARL,Kawanda.

So far, more than 17 field experiments for genetically engineered crops have been approved, with some supposed to have moved beyond confined trials toward commercialisation.

However, for nearly two decades, the government has not been able to put in place biosafety frameworks including establishment of supporting policies and building critical capacity for risk analysis to facilitate the transition.

The country’s parliament has twice passed the Genetic Engineering Bill following the presidential concerns and recommendation to regulate the technology but it remains pending.

Some of the President’s concerns relate to liability and benefit-sharing whereby Ugandans who have contributed to manufacturing genetic material can acquire a stake in the benefits the final product among a host of other concerns. However, scientists have opposed some clauses proposed; especially on the liability. On the other hand civil society organisation opposed to GM technology have celebrated the blockage.

New law mooted

Arthur Makara, the Commissioner in charge of Science Advancement and Outreach at theMinistry of Science, Technology and Innovation, says Uganda is indeed where GMO researchconcepts are proved for the benefit of other countries.

“It is regrettable that our scientists are coming up with products that are now benefiting other countries such as Rwanda and Kenya,” he said, adding that Ugandan GMO scientists, too, have decided to take refuge in non-GM research.

Makara, however, said his ministry has decided to take the lead in moving the stalled Bill forward but this time taking a holistic approach of a bio economy.

He said the ministry is in advanced stages of coming up with a bio-economy policy and then a National Bio-economy Bill that will capture all aspects of the biotechnology potentials with a strong emphasis on agriculture, health, and environment.

“I hope that the challenge that we are facing now (COVID-19) helps as demystify this technology; that it is not only for agriculture but for other sectors as well including our own health,” he said.

GM crops are now grown in more than 29 countries on 190.4million hectares of land.

Supporters of GM say they contribute to food security, sustainability, climate change mitigation, and upliftment in the lives of up to 17 million biotech farmers and their families worldwide since 1996. This is according to the latest report by the International Service for theAcquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), an international organisation that tracks GMO research. The top five countries with the widest area of GMO crops were the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India.

However, in Africa, South Africa, Sudan, and eSwatini as well as Malawi, Nigeria, and Ethiopia were early adopters. Kenya commercialised GM cotton at the end of 2019 and GM cassava in June this year.

Significant GM research, regulation, and acceptance have occurred in Mozambique, Niger, Ghana, Rwanda and Zambia.

Dr. Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a researcher on banana at Kawanda and now a Director at the National Coffee Research Institute – Mukono said it is unfortunate that Ugandan children continue to suffer from malnutrition when scientists could use GM products to save them.

He mentions a pro-vitamin A banana developed by Kawanda for areas with malnourished children like Bushenyi District in Western Uganda.

He said politicians do not see the GM law as meaningful because the masses of children whoare suffering cannot demand for the law and are not voters.

He said scientists “talk once in a while and keep quiet, yet politicians look at other things”.

He said GMs are safe and developers usually engage farmers during planning ahead of research.

“Generally, there are levels of engaging farmers depending on the knowledge base that farmershave before commercialising a product,” he said and gave examples of Prof. Gilbert Bukenya(former Vice President) and Minister Vincent Ssempija as farmers who have a betterunderstanding of GMOs.

“These are like scientists,” he said, “These are engaged in the technical phase.”

He said some people fear that GMOs will take away their economic benefits. “But we come from the public sector. Those bananas belong to the public sector, are vegetatively propagated, and people will access them for free,” he said.

There’s still hope

However, scientists say they are hopeful since Dr. Monica Musenero, a veterinarian, microbiologist and epidemiologist, was last month appointed as Minister in the Office of the President in charge of Science, Technology, and Innovation.

“We hope that Madam Masenero will be understanding,” Dr. Kiggundu said.

 

Research that has stalled because of lack of enabling laws

  1. Drought resistant hybrid GM maize: Kawanda scientists and others from six African
    countries under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project.
  2. Herbicide tolerant soybean: Makerere University’s College of Agricultural and
    Environmental Sciences
  3. GM Cotton: Local scientists supported by US-based Monsanto.
  4. GM disease resistant potatoes: Local scientists
  5. Nitrogen use efficiency in rice: Naccri, Namulonge.

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