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Uganda likely to pass its Biotech Bill next week

By Isaac Ongu

Uganda Science Technology and Innovation Minister Elioda Tumwesigye, left.  Photo by Modesta Nnedinso Abugu

Uganda’s long-awaited national Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill was delayed again yesterday, but is likely to be passed next Tuesday, according to the nation’s Minister of Science Technology and Innovation.

The bill, which would create a process for the nation to commercialize and cultivate genetically engineered crops, was scheduled for action by Parliament yesterday. But Science Technology and Innovation Minister Elioda Tumwesigye requested a delay, citing lack of readiness on his part. The speaker of the Parliament yielded to his request.

The Minister cited his lead role in organizing the “High level conference on application of science, Technology and Innovation in harnessing African Agricultural Transformation” as the reason for his request. However, in his opening remarks at the conference, Tumwesigye revealed that Oct. 3 is the day when Uganda could join Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and several other African countries that have already enacted a biosafety law.

Despite the absence of a biosafety law, Uganda follows only South Africa in the number of Confined Field Trials conducted to test the viability of GE crops in Africa. The ongoing trials include virus resistance in cassava; 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. Most biotech research projects are waiting for the law to carry out the final trials before applying to the National Biosafety Committee for environmental release and commercialization.

The President of Uganda, his Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, was expected to open the conference but was reported to have travelled abruptly for other state duties. However, he delegated the Agriculture Minister to convey his message to the conference. In the President’s speech — read verbatim by his Agriculture Minister — Museveni reiterated his commitment to and support of biotechnology. He called for working together to address non-factual information that he said has confused some legislators, resulting in unnecessary delays in passing the biosafety bill.

Other issues that contributed to the delay of Uganda’s bill included safety concerns, perceived risks to the common man and unfounded worries about the inability of GMO seeds to germinate. The so-called “terminator technology,” which would have prevented germination, never saw the light of day. Biotech advocates also noted that food safety assessments of GM crops are done on a case-by-case basis, and all GM crops currently under cultivation passed through rigorous food safety tests and were found safe for food, animal feed and the environment.

Despite these reassurances, questions about GMO food safety continue to be raised, even though they have been consumed without harm for two decades and the amount of land being cultivated in GM crops expands each year. The issue of safety is expected to come up again next Tuesday as Uganda’s Parliament debates the Biosafety Bill for the purpose of making it law.

But continued interactions between policy makers and scientists in public research institutions — coupled with consistent support by the President, whose National Resistance Movement party has a majority of Legislators in Parliament — will most likely ensure that Uganda gets a biosafety law by the end of next week.

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

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