Ugandan researchers share their frustration as nation debates GMO bill

By John Agaba

September 4, 2018

When Dr. Geoffrey Arinaitwe returned home after earning his PhD in biotechnology in Belgium in 2005, Uganda seemed a promising place for young scientists.

The country was deliberately prioritizing science and technology — disciplines envisioned as a vehicle to facilitate its goal of shifting from a peasant to a middle-income economy. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, too, had bought into biotech and its potential to solve the East African country’s perennial problems related to hunger. Museveni had commissioned a molecular lab at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) at Kawanda two years earlier to support the use of genetic engineering to shorten the process of developing improved varieties of staple foods in danger of extinction due to disease and climate change.

So for Arinaitwe, Uganda was a near-perfect haven. He would have all the assistance he needed to put his skills and education to work creating disease-resistant foods for his native Ugandans and Africans. This was his chance to give back and create something for humanity. It was an exciting time.

Now, seated in his office at the agricultural research laboratories, the agronomist and biotech expert held his cheek in his palm and wondered what had happened to the dream. Where did things go wrong? How did all the thrilling expectation dwindle over the years?

It has been 13 years since he returned and dedicated the prime of his career to developing crop varieties aimed at thwarting famine. But none of the work done by Arinaitwe and other biotech researchers has reached farmers, partly because Museveni and the country can’t make a decision on a biosafety bill that would guide commercialization of genetically modified (GM) organisms in this country.

Arinaitwe stared into space when asked what it felt like to have his work stymied.

“It is frustrating. Very frustrating,” he said, visibly sad. “I am now old, almost retiring. Soon, I won’t be able to continue this kind of work. But what do I have to show for all the time I have put in? All the nights I have spent in a lab? Nothing.”

“If people knew how painful it is to stay in a lab for the entire time until you are able to create banana from a cell, they would be more understanding of our disillusionment,” the scientist continued.

Arinaitwe noted that he and other scientists had worked to develop improved varieties of staple food crops so hungry, malnourished children in his home district of Bushenyi, as well as other parts of Uganda and Africa, would have access to more nutritious food.

“Now we have the alternatives. But we cannot get them to farmers. And children continue to get malnourished,” said the man who doubles as principal research officer at NARL, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO).

Arinaitwe and Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, who is also a plant biotechnologist, are the pioneer agronomists who started lab work to develop a GM banana in Uganda.

The breeders started by developing a bio-fortified banana rich in vitamin A, an essential nutrient that many children lack in sufficient quantities, leading to illness and blindness. Thereafter, they embarked on creating a banana resistant to bacterial wilt. The new varieties are now ready. The bio-fortified banana the researchers developed is perhaps the first of its kind created by black men.

“It was not easy,” Arinaitwe recalled. “We lacked most supplies. We lacked resources. Our technicians slept in the labs. We started from scratch, from setting up the lab to isolating desired genetic material to infusing it” in local banana varieties. At times the researchers sought help from biotechnology professors at Makerere University in the capital of Kampala when they hit brick walls.

His wish now is for persons in power to visit the laboratories and witness firsthand the research that has been halted by political indecisiveness. The delays have both a social and a personal cost, with Arinaitwe saying he will have “lost his career” if the President never signs the biotechnology bill that Parliament passed last October.

However, his colleague, Dr. Kiggundu, is more optimistic, saying “it is only a matter of time” before the biosafety bill is signed.

He noted that Uganda signed the Cartagena Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which seeks to ensure safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. So as other East African countries domesticate the CBD and enact and implement their own biotechnology regulations, Kiggundu feels Uganda will be compelled to do just the same.

“It is only that the delay can be displeasing,” he said.

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.”

But the scientists who are working in biotechnology don’t believe the President’s reasons are valid.

“The arguments the President raised, especially about storage of indigenous seeds, are basic things which we had explained” to him earlier, Arinaitwe said. “The agriculture ministry was always going to keep copies of indigenous seeds.

“There is a lot of talk that GMOs will eclipse indigenous seeds, that they are unsafe,” he continued. “But no scientist is going to introduce something which is potentially harmful to humanity. This is our country too. We have children and relatives here. Why would we introduce something which we know is risky?”

Kiggundu said scientists specifically put in the time to create GM varieties that are safe, so there is no need to impose special sanctions against scientists.

“We should be liable on misuse or abuse (of biotech), but not because GMOs got mixed with indigenous seeds,” he said.

Erostus Nsubuga is chief executive officer and chairperson of the private Agro-genetic Technologies (AGT), which specializes in tissue culture and moves research work from lab to farmers by multiplying seeds. He thinks people who don’t understand science are muddling the debate over biotech. And that is the problem.

“You have legislators, some of them Senior Six leavers [equivalent to US high school diploma], who don’t know anything about science. But they are the ones debating biotechnology and confusing President Museveni. We should leave things of science to scientists,” said Nsubuga during an interview with the Alliance for Science at one of AGT’s banana tissue culture demonstration gardens at Buloba, just outside Kampala.

In regard to the issue of patents on GM seeds, Kiggundu noted: “The country has laws that govern copyright. It should not even be an issue. I am going to claim copyright if I introduce genetic material to an organism and create a new variety. I am seeking patent for the new knowledge I have added. Not the existing one.”

In the case of Arinaitwe and Kiggundu, who work for a public organization, that entity would claim copyright.

Unlike conventional breeding, where it may take decades for researchers to develop a desired variety, biotechnology allows breeders to identify and select the specific trait they are interested in, then introduce it into an organism, to breed a new variety in record time.

“You are looking at shortening the time it would ordinarily take you to create a desired variety,” Nsubuga said. “People are looking at this (biotech) law from one dimension. They think the law will facilitate introduction of GMOs, which would diminish indigenous seeds. They are not looking at the regulatory side.”

Scientists in Uganda have developed other GM varieties apart from banana since the government’s deliberate move to promote biotech, including cassava resistant to brown streak and mosaic disease, potato resistant to late blight disease and maize that is tolerant to drought and resistant to insect pests, like fall armyworm. They’ve also been working to improve the sorghum variety that Uganda’s Nile Breweries uses to distill two popular beers: Eagle Lager and Senator.

“It is sad we can’t have farmers access these varieties,” Kiggundu said.

But on a more positive note, the scientists are working with researchers outside of Uganda, in countries where biosafety laws are already in place, to advance the technology.

For example, Ugandan biotechnologists have partnered with researchers in Kenya, where the Kenyan National Biosafety Authority makes biotech work “a lot clearer,” Kiggundu said. Under the collaboration, facilitated by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, the scientists have started trials of cassava resistant to both brown streak and mosaic viruses. They expect to apply for commercial approval of the cassava varieties next year, with the goal of making them available to farmers by early 2021.

They have not stopped there. The scientists also have GMO trials in Tanzania and are in touch with the Ethiopian Biosafety Authority, discussing the feasibility of testing the late blight resistant potato in that horn of Africa country.

If Ugandan biotech researchers can’t have their work rolled out to farmers in their own country, they’re at least finding the rest of the world is more receptive. And this is what keeps them going.