Ugandan police halt march by biotechnology students

By Isaac Ongu

February 16, 2018

Makerere University students march in support of biotechnology. Photo by Isaac Ongu

Students from Uganda s Makerere University were stopped by police yesterday as they attempted to march to Parliament to express concerns about proposed changes to the nation s biosafety law.

Undergraduate students pursuing biotechnology degrees at Uganda’s leading university have become increasingly alarmed about restrictive changes proposed to the biosafety law, which Parliament passed last October, but is now reconsidering due to concerns raised by President Museveni.

As a result, some 50 students with the Makerere University Biotechnology Society decided to share what they termed worries about their future directly with lawmakers — an unthinkable idea in an environment where youths carrying placards and marching toward Parliament in the name of meeting the Speaker can evoke precautionary measures from the police.

Indeed, the policemen came and discouraged the students from marching in a big numbers without the express permission of the top police leadership. March organizer Timothy Nyanzi said he was shocked, as police had earlier given them permission to proceed.

The group ultimately split and converged at Parliament, where the students were threatened with arrest. But they were eventually allowed into the Parliamentary premises and escorted by policemen to the Speaker’s Office, where their letter was delivered. They made an appointment to meet with the Speaker next week.

What are the issues being raised?

Nyanzi, a third-year biotechnology student, outlined seven key areas of concern for the students, who are pursuing studies that many have prejudged as dangerous. They are particularly worried about the desire of some legislators to prescribe stringent penalties on scientists whose work is regulated by the law.

“We students are frustrated about how policy makers attitudes towards biotechnology make us feel like the biotech course we are pursuing is criminal,” he said. “Coming from high school, we were not aware it could turn out this way.” They are worried that they will be unable to finish their coursework and find jobs if a stringent bill is adopted.

The students believe science is all about experimenting, and that trying to outlaw experimentation is going against the very essence of science. The students shared experiences of some who were accidentally burned by acids in laboratory work, but still would not give up on science. They also noted that scientific products are thoroughly tested for safety before they are released for public consumption.

The students said they believe scientists in the field of biotechnology are being targeted and discriminated against, and that scientists from other disciplines are not facing the same strict and punitive regulations. If the government adopts a policy banning or frustrating modern biotechnology, they said, then it should apply to all scientific disciplines.

The students also pointed out that stringent regulations are counterproductive to innovation. They reasoned that imposing stringent rules and regulations on Ugandan scientists engaged in GMO work will serve only to favor the multinational corporations that some policy makers claim to oppose, because only established multinationals will be able to meet some of the requirements.

What’s at stake?

The students decided they needed to speak up because anti-GMO activists appear to be gaining ground in dictating the language of the law. The anti-GMO activists are pushing to prescribe very stringent regulations on both scientists and farmers. Uganda’s agricultural sector comprises mainly subsistence farmers. They do not have sufficient land to maintain 400-meter buffer zones between fields growing GMO and non-GMO crops, and would be discouraged from planting GMO crops if the law subjects them to jail if cross-pollination occurs.

The Parliamentary Committee of Science and Technology, which is in charge of collecting the views of stakeholders, is expected to soon table its report containing responses to the concerns raised by the President in a letter released on social media during the Christmas holidays.

The report will comprise the cabinet’s response, but also the responses by other stakeholders to these concerns. The concerns focus on the need to preserve indigenous varieties and avoid cross-pollination, as well as labeling GMO products.

Makerere University biotechnology students are hoping that policy-makers will hear and respond to their concerns. The bill that is ultimately adopted will directly impact their futures, in terms of job opportunities. And that’s an important consideration in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and mostly unemployed.