Ugandan President wants GMO bill passed

By Christopher Bendana

March 16, 2020

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni wants the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) caucus to meet, discuss and finally pass the nation’s long-stalled Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill.

The move marks an abrupt about-face for Museveni, who previously twice refused to sign bills approved by Parliament that would regulate the process of genetic engineering.

But last week, at a meeting with the influential Presidential Investors Round Table at the State House in Entebbe, Museveni asked the minister for Investment and Privatization and the NRM chief whip in Parliament to convene a meeting of the NRM party members at the earliest opportunity to support the bill.

The NRM caucus is the largest group in Parliament, with about 80 percent of the legislators subscribing to the party. Typically, any bill it supports gets passed. President Museveni also wields enormous power, and it is uncommon for party members to go against his position, which takes precedence.

Erotus Nsubuga, vice chairman of the Agro-Value Chain Technical Working Group, was in attendance at the Round Table meeting and told the Alliance for Science that the president was concerned that anti- science groups are mixing science with religion, frustrating the work of Ugandan scientists engaged in genetic engineering crop research at Kawanda.

“They don’t understand science,” he said, re-echoing the President’s words. “This time we must pass the bill.”

Nsubuga revealed that the president then tasked the minister and NRM whip to work on a plan to convene a caucus of the ruling NRM members so that they can discuss the GMO bill.

The Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, formerly referred to as the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, is one of the most debated bills in the history of Uganda.

While Ugandan scientists argue it will allow them to use new plant breeding tools in their race to develop crops that can resist drought, pests and diseases, while improving nutrition, opponents claim it is a ploy by American biotech multi-nationals to control the seed system in the developing world.

Ugandan scientists have developed a number of genetically engineered crops, including banana, maize and potatoes, that offer farmers and consumers a number of benefits. But the nation must adopt a bill for regulating these crops before they can be commercialized and grown by farmers.

A biosafety bill was initially passed by Parliament in 2017. But the president refused to sign it, citing concerns about containment, impacts on indigenous species, labeling and patents.

The bill was sent back to the Committee of Science and Technology, which worked on the president’s concerns, and Parliament then passed it for the second time. But Museveni once again refused to sign it into law, citing health concerns, and sent it back to Parliament.

Ronnie Mutebi, vice chair of the Committee of Science, Technology and Innovation, said the Speaker of Parliament will need to give guidance on the bill since it already has been twice referred to Parliament. That’s because ideally, the bill should have been adopted after its second pass through Parliament, he said.

Image: Sumy Sadruni, AFP