Ugandan scientists skeptical of revised GMO bill

By John Agaba

November 29, 2018

The Ugandan Parliament yesterday approved a bill to regulate genetically modified organisms that has scientists skeptical the technology will ever reach the smallholder farmers it is intended to help.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” said plant biotechnologist Dr. Andrew Kiggundu in reference to last year’s events, when Parliament passed the bill, but President Museveni declined to adopt it into law.

Instead, the president returned it to Parliament over a “few areas” he wanted clarified. After more than a year of political wrangling, legislators went on to rename the bill and insert “restraining clauses” that concern researchers like Kiggundu.

“I have no problem with the title,” he said. But the agronomist, who championed development of biotech in Uganda and co-started lab work to create a GM banana, said clauses related to strict liablity for researchers, labelling GMOs and isolation distances between crops “clearly inhibited biotechnology.”

Kiggundu is not sure how the millions of smallholder farmers who dominate the country can implement those rules.

“We have to understand why we are developing biotech — so the millions of farmers can have access to more yielding and disease-tolerant and resistant crop varieties to avert hunger,” Kiggundu said. “Many of our farmers own small pieces of land. So, when you ask them to label their crops and to observe isolation distance, you are indirectly telling them ‘these improved varieties are not for you.’ How can they isolate on these small pieces of land?”

The agronomist said it was a pity “influential people, people in Parliament” still failed to understand the purpose for a biosafety law in the first place. If they understood, he said, they wouldn’t come up with these “self-limiting clauses. The law is to regulate and to guide usage of GMOs, but people think it is for introduction of GMOs.”

The reworked bill also includes a strict liability clause, which makes scientists accountable in case of any complaint associated to their research regardless of whether the particular anomaly was directly caused by the scientist.

Kiggundu said the specific clause was not only poorly thought out, but also discouraged research.

“You are saying an original automobile maker should be liable. What if it is the negligence of the person he sold the car to which caused the accident?”

The scientist said the bill, in its reworked form, still had hallmarks of the anti-GMO movement written all over it.

Arthur Makara, commissioner in charge of outreach at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, said the strict liability clause should be reserved for situations considered to be “inherently dangerous,” which is not the case with biotech.

“Every new variety has to go through a thorough process before it can be released to farmers for use. It has to be assessed by the national biosafety committee and determined to be safe. I don’t know the reason some people don’t trust science,” said Makara, who previously was executive director of Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development.

Makara said the clause was unnecessary.  And in any case, the government would be liable, as the majority of the biotech scientists are affiliated with public organizations.

“So at the end of the day, it is government making itself liable. That is, if any scientist will want to continue with research in such an environment,” Makara said.

Fred Kyakulaga, chairperson to the parliamentary committee on science, technology and innovation, said the strict liability clause will keep researchers on top of their game. It will also prioritize safety, he said, because the clause makes them liable whether they “intentionally or unintentionally” cause an anomaly.

When Museveni sent the biosafety bill back to Parliament in December 2017, he cited issues related to its title, patent rights of indigenous farmers and sanctions for scientists who mixed GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.  The President also pushed for a genetic bank, a sort of “Noah’s Ark” to store all indigenous seeds, saying that “GMO seeds should never be randomly mixed with our indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem.”

Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, said the parliamentary committee on science, technology and innovation consulted extensively to address Museveni’s concerns, which resulted in the “more specific” title for the bill and the additional clauses.

“We did not want to compromise safety,” said the minister in explaining the reason for the clauses that scientists called inhibitive.

He also said the revised bill proposed formulation of a competent authority, which will ensure safety of all GM varieties developed in the country.

The original plan was to have this competent authority under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. But this has been revised in the new bill, giving Museveni discretion to determine supervision of the authority.

Kyakulaga explained to the house that the Ministry of Agriculture already had a seed bank, which the country only needed to improve to preserve indigenous varieties.

Regarding patent rights, he said the country already has protocols and laws that govern the sharing of genetic resources.

With these amendments, the committee and the minister are hopeful the president will adopt the bill into law this time around.

The delay in implementing a policy environment has derailed release of GM crops that have been developed and tested by local scientists and found to be relevant for Uganda’s agriculture. These include a bio-fortified banana rich in vitamin A, and another variety resistant to bacterial wilt.  They also have bred cassava resistant to brown streak and mosaic diseases, potato resistant to late blight disease and maize that can tolerate drought and resist insect pests, like fall armyworm.

The political maneuverings have been particularly unfavorable for the millions of farmers who seek improved crop varieties with traits like disease-resistance and drought-tolerance, but cannot access them until the country has a legal framework to regulate the sector.

Humphrey Mutaasa, director of partnerships at Uganda National Farmers’ Association (UFFE), last month said it is unfortunate the country still has people in key positions who don’t appreciate science and what it can do.

“The political powers need to lower their egos and listen to scientists, so they can understand the bill and what it seeks to regulate,” he said.

But Tumwesigye said Parliament’s vote was a step in the right direction.