Efforts to share GMO science with Uganda’s President fail

By Christopher Bendana

July 13, 2018

A Uganda professor who launched the nation’s biotechnology training program said President Yoweri Museveni has rebuffed offers to meet and share the science behind the pending biosafety bill.

“I am sure he [the President] needs the knowledge of biotechnology,” said Prof. Emeritus Patrick Rubaihayo, the Makerere University scientist who educated the nation’s first pool of biotechnologists. “We want to explain to him that there is nothing wrong with the technology, the process involves rigorous testing and evaluation and the products are safe.”

Rubaihayo, speaking from his office at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said he and others had tried many times through the Uganda National Academy of Science (UNAS) to reach out to the President to explain the benefits of biotechnology and urge him to adopt the bill. But their letters and visits to Nakasero State Lodge (the Kampala state house) were in vain.

Parliament passed the biosafety bill, which regulates the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), last October. But Museveni returned the bill in December, asking Parliament to address a number of issues, including local farmers’ rights and the conservation of indigenous seeds.

When asked why the president refused to sign the bill, Rubaihayo replied, “Politics.”

The President’s recent hesitation to sign the bill stands in marked contrast to his early support for the agricultural technology, reflecting what some have said is the influence of anti-GMO activists.

Rubaihayo recalled that his first meeting with Museveni to discuss GMOs came during the northern insurgence, when the United States wanted to donate GM maize as part of its relief efforts. It was then that the President initiated training for the first biotechnologists so that Uganda would have its own experts to manage the technology, Rubaihayo said.

“We need our own scientists to understand this technology,” Rubaihayo recalled the President telling him. “And because he was interested we never ran out of money to train biotechnologists.”

But Makerere University students pursuing biotechnology degrees at Uganda’s leading university have become increasingly alarmed about restrictive changes proposed to the biosafety law, which could impose stringent penalties on scientists who work with the technology.

The students also fear they’ll be unable to find jobs upon graduation, and charge their field of study is facing unfair discrimination, scrutiny and regulation. As a result, about 50 students took the rare step last February of marching on Parliament to deliver a petition stating their concerns.

While the scientists argue that biotechnology helps them breed crops with precision and avoid unwanted traits common in traditional breeding, critics claim it is a ploy by American biotech giants to dominate the seed system and enslave smallholder farmers. The technology has been widely adopted in the US, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. It has also been approved for some crops in India, China and elsewhere.

Rubaihayo said Uganda’s government took initial steps necessary for the biosafety law when it ratified the Cartagena Protocol — an international agreement that requires every state to adopt legislation to ensure safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms — and set the nation’s biotechnology policy.

Rubaihayo, who was a visiting scientist at Ohio State University in the US for two years beginning in 1989, said Uganda needs biotechnology now more than ever because of the current problems of urbanization, increased population growth, drought, climate change and the loss of viability in current cultivars.

All of these factors point to the need to develop improved seeds that can increase yield and resist disease, pests and drought. And indeed, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) has been involved in several projects to address some of these challenges.

These include banana resistant to the virulent bacteria wilt, bred at the National Laboratories Research Institute-Kawanda, as well as cassava resistant to brown streak disease, developed at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge.

Other advanced genetic research has been successfully conducted on drought-tolerant maize through the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project; the nitrogen- and water-efficient NEWEST rice, which is also salt tolerant; and Irish potatoes resistant to late blight disease.

But Uganda must adopt a biosafety law before any of these public sector seeds can be made available to farmers.

Rubaihayo said that with government support,  Makerere University has created a pool of staff that can handle cell culture and molecular analysis on the modern level. He added that Parliament should seek advice from such experts in its scientific debates, rather than depending on people who have never even looked through a microscope.

“Genetic engineering is difficult science,” he argued. “It is looking beyond the cell.”

Rubaihayo noted that Makerere University has become a biotechnology center of excellence, training students from across Africa at the master’s and doctorate levels. Surprisingly, much of the funding has come from the European Union, which has very limited adoption of GM crops.

In addition to their march on Parliament, the Makerere University Biotechnology Students Association has petitioned Parliament several times, urging lawmakers to pass the biosafety bill and make it less restrictive.

Christian Acemah, UNAS executive secretary, said the organization also wants to meet with Museveni to discuss its report, which answers the President’s questions on biosafety and biosecurity and was presented to Parliament in 2009. But like Rubaihayo, he acknowledged that it has been a tall order to meet the President.

“We know we are in queue of a million,” Acemah said.