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Museveni must sign GMO law

And other implications of Kenya’s new law on Uganda

ANALAYSIS  | THE INDEPENDENT | Kenya’s neighbours have begun reacting to its recent move to allow cultivation and importation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) with moves that could lead to a slew of new legislation either for or against the cultivation, importation, and trade in GMOs and their by-products.

Tanzania which in January 2021 cancelled research trials involving GMO maize and cassava after the country’s research institute released field trial without being authorized has vowed to enforce a biosafety ban against imported GMOs.

“We are not open to such GM technology,” said Agriculture minister Hussein Bashe in an interview with The Citizen newspaper.

In Uganda, on Oct.14, barely two weeks after the Kenya decision, several MPs led by former Minister of Information, James Nsaba Buturo (Bufumbira County East) told journalists at a press conference that they plan to introduce a bill prohibiting GMOs.

“GMOs are a disaster. Eminent scientists have said there are no benefits of GMOs. 50 African countries out of 54 have said no to GMOs. So, those who are rushing us to accept them have their agenda,” Buturo said.

“We know it is going to be a big fight. Those people will use a lot of money but we believe that with God on our side, we shall defeat them,” he said.

On Oct.3, Kenya’s newly-elected President, William Ruto, chaired a special meeting of his freshly appointed ministerial cabinet, in which a raft of resolutions were passed, paving way for GMO cultivation and imports into the East African nation.

The decision marked a breakaway from a decade-long ban on GMOs.

“Cabinet vacated its earlier decision of 8th November, 2012, prohibiting the open cultivation of genetically modified crops and the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations; effectively lifting the ban on Genetically Modified crops,” reads the dispatch from the cabinet meeting.

The cabinet also authorised the importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations.

Supporters say the move could trigger a major shift towards evidence-based solutions to agricultural production in other countries on the continent.

“The stage is now set for the country’s farmers to realise the full benefits of a technology that pundits expect will remarkably boost crop production and augment the livelihoods of thousands across value chains,” one report said.

Museveni must decide

The Ugandan anti-GMO lobby is agitated over the Kenyan move partly because they sense that President Yoweri Museveni who has previously blown hot and cold on the issue of GMO might this time endorse.

It is also not a well-kept secret that Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organization (NARO) is said to have the most active GMO research facilities on the African continent. According to the South African based African Center for Biodiversity (ACB), Uganda has the largest number of GMO crops under testing by NARO. These include maize, bananas, cassava, potato, rice and sweet potatoes.

Another factor is that the anti-GMO lobby has been fighting against laws designed by the pro-GMO lobby in parliament and the only buffer they have had is President Museveni.

Previously President Museveni has appeared to support the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 which was in 2013 presented to Parliament amidst opposition claims that it intends to smuggle GMOs into the country without safeguards.

In March 2017, Museveni said Parliament should quickly pass the Bill ‘to help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector is facing.”

But in January 2018, Museveni refused to sign the Bill into law and sent it back citing lack of clarity on its title, patent rights for indigenous farmers and sanctions on scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.

The Bill was frantically reworked but Museveni in August 2019 again refused to sign it into law. He instead raised new issues he needed Parliament to insert before he could sign it.

Again, the Bill now known as the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, complete with provisions for a regulatory framework for safety in development and application of GMOs, was frantically tweaked and sent to the President in 2021.

But President Museveni has yet to sign the Bill into law. It is not clear how he will react now that the new Kenyan President, William Ruto, with whom Museveni is said to agree on many things, has signed a pro-GMO law.

Whether he signs it into law or not, it now appears Museveni’s hand has been forced.

Three years ago, in 2019 Kenya became the first country in the East African region to grow a genetically modified crop when it approved commercial farming of Bt cotton; a variety of cotton that is resistant against the devastating African Bollworm.

In 2021 Kenya also became the first country globally to approve national performance trials of genetically modified (GM) cassava.

For years, scientists have been concerned about the potential of genetically altered has appeared to support the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 which was in 2013 presented to Parliament amidst opposition claims that it intends to smuggle GMOs into the country without safeguards.

In March 2017, Museveni said Parliament should quickly pass the Bill ‘to help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector is facing.”

But in January 2018, Museveni refused to sign the Bill into law and sent it back citing lack of clarity on its title, patent rights for indigenous farmers and sanctions on scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.

The Bill was frantically reworked but Museveni in August 2019 again refused to sign it into law. He instead raised new issues he needed Parliament to insert before he could sign it.

Again, the Bill now known as the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, complete with provisions for a regulatory framework for safety in development and application of GMOs, was frantically tweaked and sent to the President in 2021.

But President Museveni has yet to sign the Bill into law. It is not clear how he will react now that the new Kenyan President, William Ruto, with whom Museveni is said to agree on many things, has signed a pro-GMO law.

Whether he signs it into law or not, it now appears Museveni’s hand has been forced.

Three years ago, in 2019 Kenya became the first country in the East African region to grow a genetically modified crop when it approved commercial farming of Bt cotton; a variety of cotton that is resistant against the devastating African Bollworm.

In 2021 Kenya also became the first country globally to approve national performance trials of genetically modified (GM) cassava.

For years, scientists have been concerned about the potential of genetically altered crops spreading their altered genes to neighboring conventional crops or to different species. Such cross-pollination can occur because GM plant pollen can be carried over long distances from plant to plant and field to field, by birds, insects, and even wind.

According to one study, maize pollen can travel a half-mile in two minutes with fifteen miles-per-hour winds and the distance can increase dramatically “under the correct conditions.” This means pollen from GM maize field in Cherubei village in Kenya can easily drift to a maize field in Suam village in eastern Uganda.

A similar real life situation has occurred regarding maize between neighbours Mexico which initially restricted GM maize cultivation and the USA which does not discriminate between GM and conventional maize varieties during shipment, processing, milling, or packaging.

Mexico was forced to lower its opposition to GMOs after GM maize was found growing on its territory due to cross-border movement of American GM maize products.

Based on this, it is smart to predict that Uganda might likewise follow Kenya’s lead on the journey to GMO acceptance in the fields if not in the supermarket shelves.

President Ruto’s decision has opened the Kenyan market to the world’s largest seed companies such as Bayer (formerly Monsanto) and imports of cheap GM maize from the U.S. which has been pushing to expand its exports of genetically modified food crops into the Kenyan market. Other plants such as potatoes, soy bean, egg plants and more will follow.

From Kenya, the GM products will push westward into Uganda. Already Uganda imports a wide variety of agriculture products/byproducts from Kenya. These include edible vegetables, roots, tubers, seeds, live animals, meat, chicken, vegetable fats and oils, cleavage products, fruits, and nuts.

Uganda also imports fish and ocean creatures, residues, wastes of food industry, animal fodder, grains, cereals, flour, starch, milk preparations and products, cotton, coffee, tea, mate and spices, cocoa and cocoa preparations, dairy products, eggs, honey, live trees, plants, bulbs, roots, cut flowers and vegetable planting materials and vegetable products.

Based on this, the big GM seed and products companies that are set to dominate the Kenyan market will equally dominate the Uganda market whether President Museveni signs the GMO Bill into law or he does not. President Museveni must, therefore, sign the GMO law of some kind if Uganda’s interests are to be protected.

Passing of Uganda’s GMO law has run into a back-and-forth haggle between President Museveni and parliament over its content, drafting, and language. Most of the arguments by Museveni and MPs are based on opinions of both the pro or anti-GMO experts and lobbyists.

President Museveni is decidedly on the side of adopting science and technology to improve the agriculture sector. But he is equally cautious not to let through developments he has described as “inimical to our future.” Ever the political mind, Museveni, has shown concern over the credibility and patriotism of his scientists from both camps and the reliability of the scientific process of the GMOs.

He wants GMOs, if adopted, to be kept at a safe distance from the smallholder farmers who grow indigenous and wants them to have power in the law to reject GMOs.

This has led to the so-called “strict liability debate” which seeks to apportion liability and indemnity in case of unwanted outcomes of GMOs.

The Bill originally sent to the President read: “A person responsible for an activity relating to GMO, under this Act, shall be liable for any damage, harm, inconvenience or loss caused to the environment biodiversity, eco-system, species of flora and fauna or human and animal health.”

The initial proposal that introduced strict liability read: “A proprietor or an individual developer of Genetically Engineered Material (GEM), under this Act, shall be strictly liable for any damage,
harm, inconvenience or loss caused to the community livelihood, indigenous knowledge systems or technologies, environments, bio-diversity, eco-systems, species of flora and fauna or human and animal health.”

The pro-GMO camp reject this language. World over, they argue, the general trend is to move away from strict liability. They say strict liability gives a blank cheque to apportioning responsibility in case of an unwanted outcome even when it is not directly related to a particular GM activity.

They say using the wording “strict liability,” without qualifying it, would mean that most GM scientists will stop work.

The last Bill Parliament passed has a strict liability clause that states: “A person who owns a patent in a Genetically Engineered Material (GEM) is strictly liable for any harm, injury or loss caused directly or indirectly by such a GEM to the community livelihood, indigenous knowledge systems or technologies, environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, species of fauna and flora, human or animal health.”

The Pro-GMO scientists, lobbyists, and enthusiasts do not want that to become law.

That is possibly why the Bill is sitting on a shelf in the President’s office.

There has been commentary in the media that President Museveni has chosen not to sign the Bill deliberately. It is argued that this means it could now become law without the President’s signature.

The commentators point out that the Ugandan constitution provides that when the President fails to sign or return a bill to Parliament within the prescribed 30 days, “the President shall be taken to have assented to the bill and at the expiration of that period, the Speaker shall cause a copy of the bill to be laid before Parliament and the bill shall become law without the assent of the President.”

Cross-border biosafety

The African Union is developing guidelines for the use of GM crops across the continent, amidst similar criticism as seen in Uganda. It is being accused of favouring big business.

Only seven countries – South Africa, Sudan, eSwatini, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria and Kenya – have approved the commercial production of GM crops, mainly insectresistant cotton.

But the pro-GM lobby is casting the adoption of GMOs as a foregone conclusion to avoid the ever increasing spate of drought and hunger, threats of pests and disease, and effects of climate change. They point at how President Macky Sall of Senegal signed a biosafety law on June 14, 2022 that effectively repealed the 2009 biosecurity law and enabled use of GMOs.

With or without President Museveni signing the new GMO law, after Kenya’s pro-GMO move, Uganda has been cast closure into the mine field of biosafety challenges.

Biosafety is a concept that refers to measures put in place to mitigate or protect human health and the environment from possible adverse effects of the products of modern biotechnology.

Worldwide access to better information on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is based on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which was ratified by the European Union in 2002.

The Protocol is designed to protect biological diversity, and, in turn, human health through an Advanced Informed Agreement (AIA) procedure which ensures countries are given the necessary
information to make informed decisions on whether to import GMOs intended for introduction into the environment.

The Cartagena Protocol set out the first international legal framework for the crossborder movement of GMOs on the basis of the ‘precautionary principle.’ It contains documentation requirements for shipments of GMOs and establishes a Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) to facilitate the exchange of information on living modified organisms and to assist countries in the implementation of the Protocol.

The required number of 50 instruments of ratification/accession/approval/acceptance by countries was reached in May 2003. In accordance with the provisions of its Article 37, the Protocol entered into force on 11 September 2003. As of July 2020, the Protocol had 173 parties.

Kenya signed the Biosafety Protocol in 2000 and fulfilled the ratification requirements in 2003. One of the key obligations expected from the Parties to the Protocol is promotion and facilitation
of public awareness, education and participation in biosafety activities as stipulated.

Uganda has been Party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety since September 11, 2003 and Party to the Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress since March 05, 2018.

Meanwhile, Nsaba Buturo and his antiGMO MPs continue to campaign and threaten.

“The threat faced by Uganda is worse than colonization. Ugandans must wake up. The enemy is determined to completely encircle us, make us dependent, make us foolish before human race and we are saying no,” he said at the Oct.14 press conference.

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