The Ugandan Parliament will resume debate on the stalled Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill when lawmakers return from recess later this month. The bill ultimately will determine whether the east African nation’s farmers are permitted to grow GMO crops.
Top politicians in Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement party, which holds a 60 percent majority in parliament, have made several statements in support of the bill, with the president, who is their chairman, taking the lead. President Yoweri Museveni called the delay “a bad mistake,” and his Agriculture State Minister, Hon. Christopher Kibazanga, said at the launch of the recent Global Status of Biotech Crops session in Kampala that the government would do all it takes to ensure the bill is passed.
The Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill would establish a formal process for bringing GMO crops to commercialization in Uganda. It currently is at the stage where Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee is due to present a report from the stakeholders’ consultations to the whole house. The report entails suggestions for amending the draft bill.
Suggested amendments range from changing the title of the proposed bill, to replacing references to “GMO” with “modern biotechnology” to include emerging technologies like gene editing. Some civil society organizations had complained that the bill talked about biotechnology, yet focused only on GMOs, so they wanted the title changed to “GMO Bill.”
Other recommendations designate the Ministry of Science and Technology as the competent authority administering the law, with the current National Biosafety Committee strengthened and placed under the Ministry’s directorate. The requirement for labeling GMO products was retained. The only issue likely to remain contentious is in clause 37 of the bill, which talks about offenses and penalties. It states: “Any person who engages in research or makes general release of a GMO without approval commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred and twenty currency points or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both.” Some of those consulted think a five-year jail term is not deterrent enough. A proposed amendment may double the jail term to 10 years.
Ugandan Prime Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda advised against forming a Biosafety Authority, as it may create another layer of redundant bureaucracy. He said the legal structure of an Authority is too costly to put in place. Uganda currently has a National Biosafety Committee that has handled all the GMO related applications since its inception in 1996. Kenya has a National Biosafety Authority, but it has had very few new applications.
Legislators will choose whether to take-up the recommendations or reject them before passing a particular clause. Two committee members authored a minority report suggesting need for further consultations, though some members dismissed the move as the usual delay tactic deployed by those who are opposed to having any genetically modified crops made available to Ugandan farmers.
What's at stake
Crops in the pipeline for Ugandan small-holder farmers include drought tolerant maize developed under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program, “matooke” cooking banana resistant to bacterial wilt disease and cassava resistant to brown streak and mosaic viruses. Scientists hope that food security in the country will be improved with these crops. But without the passage of the bill it is unlikely farmers will be able to access these improved crops.
The consultations that culminated in the report were carried out afresh by the current 10th Parliament from January to April of this year and ended with the joint consultative meeting. Consultations included face-to-face interactions with civil society groups for and against biotechnology, and representatives from key ministries. The Science and Technology Committee also visited various public research facilities where transgenic crop trials are being conducted, as well as countries that have been growing GM crops for years, such as South Africa, Brazil and India.
The previous members of Parliament had gone through the same process, but their terms ended before they could debate the report, so the bill was not tabled for the second reading. The bill has been stalled now for six years.
A shifting political climate
Several things have changed in Uganda since the bill was tabled. Most notably, Uganda got a new Parliament following the general election in February 2016. Over 70 percent of those who thought they would retain their seats by not passing the law failed to be re-elected.
Uganda also has created a new Ministry for Science and Technology, which would provide oversight for the law. Previously, it was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development. The current draft bill, however, still has the Finance Minister as its main sponsor.
Uganda’s current regulatory status
In 2008, Uganda passed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, which provides a framework for safe application of biotechnology in order to contribute to Uganda’s economic growth and transformation. A 1980 act of Parliament created the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) to oversee all scientific research in Uganda. UNCST created a National Biosafety Committee (NBC) in 1996 that currently approves all applications for GMO trials, including issuance of regulatory guidelines. NBC, like the UNCST that created it, has a mandate that does not stretch beyond overseeing research. Uganda is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which it ratified in 2001. The Cartagena Protocol requires signatories to domesticate the protocol through national regulations like the current biosafety bill, which has been under consideration for close to a decade.
Delays despite strong statements of support
One of the setbacks in passing biosafety regulations in most African countries is the lack of political will in the face of determined opposition from some anti-GMO groups. In Uganda, this seems to be shifting, with both majority leaders and President Museveni speaking in support of the bill. The President recently remarked that it was a bad mistake to have delayed passing the bill for so long. However, the position of First Lady Janet Museveni, who doubles as Minister of Education and Sports, is critical. She has not come out publicly to advance any position, but recently convened a meeting for scientists who are involved with GM trials and those who are against GMOs. Two reports came from the meeting: the first one, reported in The Observer, stated that the first lady was mediating while the other, reported in The Sunrise, posed a question as to whether she was a critic. Politicians prefer to create debates where those who are for biotechnology face off against those who are opposed. Most scientists prefer to avoid such arrangements, citing the emotional tenor and lack of facts that characterize the other side.
One positive side to the delay could be greater public awareness about biotechnology, which has lately attracted more debates on social media, with more people coming out boldly in support. As a result, passage of the bill in Uganda could perhaps be accompanied by greater public acceptance of the technology. This has not been the case in some other African countries, which have a biosafety bill but still have not deregulated genetically engineered crops for cultivation by farmers.
Isaac Ongu is a Uganda-based journalist who specializes in agriculture.