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Uganda Parliament adopts GMO law in a monumental victory for science allies

By Isaac Ongu

Science and Technology Chair Robert Kafeero Ssekitoleko at consultation session. Photo by Isaac Ongu

Uganda’s Parliament voted the long awaited National Biosafety Act of 2017 into law today, ending years of governmental debate over whether that nation’s farmers will be able to access GMOs and other tools of genetic engineering.

The historic action came at about 6 p.m. East African standard time, after Parliament’s Committee of the Whole went through the original National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill clause by clause, considering both the Science and Technology Committee’s report and the Prime Minister’s proposals.

The National Biosafety Act 2017 will now be forwarded to President Yoweri Museveni. The President, who has on several occasions endorsed biotechnology and expressed frustration over the delay of the bill’s passage, is expected to sign the law, which will become operational immediately.

Following the vote, the mood among science allies in Uganda could be described as “celebratory.” Patricia Nanteza who works with the national banana program at Kawanda, was ecstatic as she reflected on the way forward.

“It’s exciting, though it feels almost unreal after all the setbacks,” Nanteza said. “But finally, banana farmers will be able to access varieties of banana resistant to bacterial wilt, and the people, especially children, can finally eat bananas and other foods rich in Vitamin A.”

Like Nanteza, Peter Wamboga-Mugirya  is an Alliance for Science Fellow who was instrumental in educating both the grassroots and policy-makers to help them understand the process of biotechnology and why the biosafety law was needed. Mugirya, director for communication and partnerships at the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), also couldn’t help but recall the long process that started before 2008, when the Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy was first approved by Parliament. The newly approved national biosafety law will operationalize the policy.

Mugirya, however, believes the hard work has just started. He pointed to the need to conduct aggressive grassroots outreach, taking advantage of the multi-locational biotech field trials that will be possible under the new law. Alliance for Science Fellow Nassib Mugwanya also agreed the time is now ripe for massive public sensitization in order to build on the current gain.

As the Committee of the Whole reviewed the bill, the Speaker — serving also as committee chair — paused after each clause to pose the question: “For those in favor say Aye and on the contrary no.” Ayes had it and carried the day. The Bill was passed with few amendments, most notably the Minister’s suggestion of forming an inter-ministerial body that encompasses all the related government ministries.

But there was a little scare of delay along the way when a member proposed a motion to halt the process, citing the inability of lawmakers to read the draft bill on their iPads due to poor Internet connectivity. The plea was granted and the minister had to move a motion for the adoption of the six clauses that had already been endorsed before the house could reconstitute again for other businesses.

As fate would have it, the Internet connectivity returned as strong as the resolve of many members present to have the biosafety law in place. The process that started the previous day with general debate that followed the second reading of the bill reflected the views of MPs who both supported and opposed its passage. A motion was moved to defer the bill for further consultations, but the Speaker took a stand and ruled in favor of continuing with the process.

Members of Parliament who wanted the bill delayed or not considered at all raised unwarranted concerns, such as farmers will not be able to afford GMO seeds; the biosafety bill is bad news for Ugandans; and local seeds will not survive with GMO seeds.

Those for its passage cited the need to adopt science and technology, as no country has prospered without it. They also said the bill allows the country to regulate GMOs so that Ugandans can be assured of their safety, and that rejecting the bill in totality would be a disservice to country.

The Bill came at a time when 25 of Members of Parliament were suspended for violating the code of conduct and house rules during a fracas last week. Those Members of Parliament are to return to the house on Thursday. All opposition members also chose to keep away from the house, in solidarity with their colleagues. Some of the MPs who most strongly support biotechnology and the need for a biosafety bill are among those in the opposition. The differing views in both the opposition and the ruling parties suggest that issues of science and technology, such as biotechnology and climate change, are not partisan. As seen today, even the ruling party in the absence of opposition MPs could not take one position on the bill.

Uganda's process in adopting a biosafety law

Uganda passed the Biotechnology and the Biosafety Policy in 2008 after it had ratified the Cartagena protocol on Biosafety in 2002. GMO field trials in Uganda currently are being conducted under the National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST) Act. Under the UNCST Act, Uganda established the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) with a mandate of supervising GMO activities up to the Confined Field Trial (CFT) stage. The current bill, when enacted, gives the UNCST authority to decide whether to approve new GM crop varieties that will be made available to Ugandan farmers, taking the recommendation of the NBC into account. 

A number of trials are currently under way to improve crops in Uganda. These include virus resistance in cassava; drought tolerance and insect resistance in maize; herbicide tolerance in soybean; late blight resistance in potato; nitrogen efficiency, water efficiency and salt tolerance in rice; wilt resistance in banana; beta carotene enhancement in banana; and black sigatoka resistance in banana. Now that the law has been passed they can carry out the final trials before applying to the NBC for environmental release and commercialization.

Isaac Ongu is a Uganda-based journalist who specializes in agriculture. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

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