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Uganda’s President challenges nation’s new GMO bill

By Isaac Ongu

President Yoweri Museveni

In the early morning hours of Dec. 27, a scanned copy of a letter purportedly from Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s office started popping up on social media. The letter — addressed to Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga — challenged some aspects of the Biosafety Bill that lawmakers passed in October, but Museveni has yet to sign.

The long-awaited bill establishes a regulatory structure for the research and release of genetically engineered organisms under Uganda’s Ministry of Science and Technology — though in his letter, which has since been confirmed as authentic, Museveni seeks to move that authority to his office, instead.

Uganda’s Daily Monitor reported on the leaked, then-unconfirmed document under the headline, “Museveni declines to sign GMO bill into law.” However, Museveni did not specifically reject the bill, and he clearly stated: “We welcome genetically modified seeds.”

Still, the letter indicates that anti-GMO activists have the President’s ear, as it is prefaced with the phrase “I have heard that the following points may be inimical to our future” and raises many of the same issues that activists cited in their own opposition to the bill. These include protection of  “ancient crops and livestock with unique configurations”; clarifying patent rights; clear labeling of GMO materials and a severe punishments for those who fail to abide; and fears that the technology will be used to clone human beings unless the law specifies that the use of biotechology is limited to crops and livestock.

The letter also directs the Minister of Agriculture to create a gene bank, or what the President termed “a Noah’s Ark where all our unique indigenous material (for plant and animal) will be kept, uncontaminated by GMO, for future use if there is any crisis within the modernization efforts.”

Additionally, Museveni questioned whether the National Agricultural Research Organization had already released any genetically engineered variety t the public, and if so, how it has protected the indigenous varieties. He also asked why a drought tolerant maize trial was being held in Mobuku, an area with irrigation.

The President further asserted that GMO seeds “should never be mixed randomly with our indigenous varieties” and the law “should clarify that green houses will be used to imprison the pollen of the GM seeds or distances should be stipulated so that there is no mix-up.” His letter also stated that “effluent from the GMO material should never mix with our organic materials” and the “use of poison and dangerous bacteria as the input in genetic engineering must never be allowed.”

What could happen?

The President concluded his letter by asking Parliament to consider the 11 points he raised and review both the title of the bill — he questioned why it wasn’t called a genetic engineering law — and seven clauses within the measure.

Article 91 of Uganda’s Constitution recognizes Parliament’s legislative power and outlines steps for how the President can send a bill to back to Parliament to have certain provisions revised before he will sign it.  However, a bill can become law without the President’s signature if the returned bill is approved by two-thirds of the members of Parliament. The Biosafety Bill did not have that level of support when it was passed by Parliament in October.

Parliament is set to reconvene in January, though no date has been set.

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