Farmers, scientists wait in suspense for Uganda GMO bill to become law

By John Agaba

October 10, 2018

Though it’s been a year since Uganda’s Parliament approved a biosafety bill to regulate genetically modified organisms, farmers and scientists remain in suspense over whether it will ever become law.

Researchers had hoped the “few areas” President Yoweri Museveni cited for returning the bill would be quickly reworked, paving the way for the East African nation to commercialize the improved crop varieties.

But as the one-year anniversary of legislative approval came and went, they are still waiting.

“It is disturbing,” said Arthur Makara, executive director of Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE). “There are only a few things which the President wanted explained. Why should it (debating clarifications) take an entire year?”

Makara said the back and forth political maneuvers and uncertainty aren’t conducive to the country’s development of science. The delay has 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.

Recent behaviors by Parliament have contributed to the uncertainty and suspense.

The revised bill was scheduled for reading in-house last week. But Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, the minister of science, technology and innovation who is in charge of the bill, wasn’t anywhere near Parliament’s chambers, explaining his absence only by saying he wasn’t in Kampala that day.

When he presented the bill a day later, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga said the house wasn’t “properly constituted,” meaning it lacked a quorum to debate the bill. The speaker deferred the bill until the next sitting, and then Parliament went on recess, which is likely to last until Nov. 6.

All these acts seem to point to a lack of political will to move the bill through Parliament and have President Museveni sign it into law.

Humphrey Mutaasa, director of partnerships at Uganda National Farmers’ Association (UFFE), 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.

This is not the first time that bills perceived as contentious in Uganda have been left to gather dust in Parliament.

A health insurance bill, which seeks to provide universal access to healthcare, has been in Parliament for more than 20 years, receiving its certificate of financial implication only last year. A national seed policy has been in the house for close to a decade. Then there is the marriage and divorce bill, which has been in Parliament since 2009.

However, Minister Tumwesigye is hopeful his bill won’t suffer the same fate.

“Parliament and the country’s leadership have enough political will to see the bill passed and turned into acceptable law,” Tumwesigye said. “Our President champions technology and believes it can deliver the country to middle-income status.”

“But it is a process. Let us not forget that it is food we are debating over. And we have two extreme views (some for and some against),” Tumwesigye said. “It has taken us time to get to a consensus, to overcome some elements who were against the bill and GMOs.”

The biosafety law will enable farmers to access genetically modified crop varieties that are better yielding and disease-resistant or drought-tolerant, but at same time will restrict the unauthorized entry of GMOs into country.

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.”

Tumwesigye said Parliament’s committee on science, technology and innovation consulted extensively to address Museveni’s concerns and proposed a “more specific” title for the bill.  This time around, the bill will be titled the genetic engineering and biosafety bill. The committee dropped the word biotechnology, which encompasses a lot of other things, Tumwesigye said.

On patent rights of indigenous farmers, the minister said the country already has protocols and laws that govern the sharing of genetic resources.

He said the ministry of agriculture already has a seed bank, which the country only needed to improve to preserve indigenous varieties.

Tumwesigye said the committee also agreed to include a clause calling for “clear labeling” of genetically modified varieties. Additionally, anyone engaged in seed multiplication must adopt an isolation buffer between GM and indigenous crops so they don’t mix.

With these recommendations, the minister is hopeful President Museveni will assent to the bill after it is adopted by Parliament.

Ronnie David Mutebi, the vice chairperson to the parliamentary committee, is hopeful the house will adopt the new recommendations sooner than later.

The house already ruled it would not engage in debate outside the issues Museveni raised. The revised bill also didn’t require a new certificate of financial implication since the document was provided before passing the same bill last year.

Parliament will only move a motion to either consider or reject the committee’s recommendations. Any additional amendments could only touch upon issues that Museveni specifically raised, Mutebi said.

If Parliament adopts the committee recommendations, President Museveni has up to 30 days to adopt the bill into law or to return it to the house.

Under Ugandan laws, Parliament has authority to vote a bill into law if the President has rejected it three times.

Meanwhile, biotech activists have resumed their efforts to sensitize communities and parliamentarians about the bill and what science can do to transform the developing nation.

A fortnight ago, SCIFODE organized media trainings, engaging reporters to play a role in teaching communities about the pros and cons of science.

Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde, coordinator for the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCCRI) at Namulonge, said it was hard for Ugandan lawmakers to exercise political will on the biosafety bill because the legislators had received lots of “misinformation.” However, scientists who are engaged in actual research have limited resources and access to share their experiences and expertise with key stakeholders.

“But we need these key stakeholders to understand that not all science is bad,” she said.

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, she said, while also allowing the importation of products with GM ingredients that have not been regulated.

“Some people are calling on scientists to leave their food crops alone,” said Peter Wamboga, director of communication and partnerships at SCIFODE. “But the drought and diseases are not leaving them alone. As long as we are encroaching on wetlands and are unable to stop climate change, we need remedies. Biotech is one of the ways.”

Scientists in Uganda have developed 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.

Now it’s up to Parliament to decide whether farmers will ever be able to grow these improved crops.