Over 1.3 Million Ugandans are experiencing some form of hunger as a result of prolonged drought that has caused massive crop failure leading to famine. Hardly had the sight of flourishing new crops brought hope to the subsistence hungry Ugandan households when the armyworms, a corn pest, struck. These worms are not the ordinary armyworms that come and go in a week. It is the fall armyworm, a type not seen before that causes extreme damage to a crop, more than the usual worms--attacking both the young shoots and the hardened leaves.
Billions of shillings from Uganda’s budget have been diverted to fighting hunger and now to controlling these worms. Government programs, for examples, elections of local leaders; and providing provisions of sanitary towels to poor girls to keep them at school have been suspended. Sections who feel aggrieved for the diversion of resources towards addressing hunger are pushing the government to the edge.
Drought tolerant crops perhaps could not have addressed the issues of prolonged drought but insect resistant transgenic maize is seen flourishing beside ravaged local maize varieties. The problem is that these resistant varieties are still confined in guarded fields because the Catargena Protocol that Uganda ratified demands there must be a biosafety law in place before farmers can access the insect resistant varieties. The Anti GMO activists have fought a battle to keep the legislators from enacting the biosafety law so that farmers may not access these “evil crops” that could save farmers from famine. Will Uganda be able to resist the activists' assault designed to prevent the adoption of a regulatory framework.
Ugandan anti GMO activists and scientists agree on key clauses of the Biosafety Bill
Uganda is one of the leading biotechnology research companies in Africa. Despite years of research work by scientists, there has not been a comprehensive Biosafety law that would enable commercialization of GM products. The anti GM activists believed enactment of the law would open doors for GM cultivation--something they wouldn’t want. Most members of the activists group believed the bill was meant to promote GMOs and needed to be overhauled.
The committee of science and technologies of the Uganda’s Parliament has been collecting views of various stakeholders on the Biosafety Bill. After meeting the stakeholders they convened a meeting of both pro and anti GM activists, scientists, legislators and policy makers. The meeting was meant to generate consensus on key clauses of the bill.
The anti GM civil society organizations represented were: Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI); Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM); Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE); Pan-African Club; and Climate Action Network-Uganda (CAN-U).
The pro or neutral organizations included: National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO); Cotton Development Organization (CDO); National Environment Management Authority (NEMA); Makerere University; Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda (PSU); National Drug Authority (NDA); African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), Uganda National Council for Science and Technology Uganda Biotechnology (UNCST); and Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC).
The major areas that the anti GM activists had issues with included; the title of the bill, which they wanted changed from the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill; The Competent Authority to be different from the current one proposed in the draft bill, which is the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology; and the content of the bill to cover other forms of biotechnology other than GMOs; and labeling. The two sides agreed to maintain the title of the bill but that where there is GMO in the Bill should be replaced with Modern Biotechnology or targeted Biotechnology; to have the newly created Ministry of Science and Technology become a competent authority on issues of biosafety to oversee the National Biosafety Committee; the national Focal Point which acts as link between the country and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) would remain the Ministry of Environment.
Status of Uganda’s Biosafety law process
Uganda passed a national Biotechnology and Biosafetyy Policy in 2008 with a main objective of harnessing benefits of biotechnology in all the sectors. Uganda then went on to draft regulatory framework 10 year later (2012). Since 2012 up to now, Ugandan legislators have not yet enacted this law and farmers cannot access the transgenic crops that could help address the current issues of drounght and insect. There has been several consultations and counter consultations on why Uganda should and should not embrace biotechnology. The role of collecting views have been that of the parliamentary committee for science and technology. These committees have done lots of consultations that included benchmarking with countries like Brazil, India and South Africa that have grown GM crops for years. There last activity on consultations was bridging the gap between issues that were being raised by those who thought the Biosafety Bill was so bad and was meant to promote all sorts of GM products.
Prime Ministers suggestions to activism challenges
Speaking at a the same consensus building roundtable meeting, the Prime Minister pointed out at the two major obstacles that are responsible for the delay of GM crops adoption: the Innocent Ignorant farmers and “Some groups who want Uganda to remain backward and dependent”. He continued to say the latter category’s dominance in Africa is threatened and that they do not wish Africa well.
Uganda’s premier’s suggested two solutions to these challenges. The solution to those that do not wish Uganda and Africa well was that Africa must be ready for such people and must confront and stop them. He however did not delve into how the “stopping” would be carried out. The ignorant innocent farmers are to be senstized.
Whether the Prime Minister will confront the issues by mobilizing members of his party which are a majority in the house will soon be seen, since the committee is ready with its report. The President has also on several occasions publicly endorsed the need to make biotech crops availability to farmers. As we wait for this, Over a million subsistence farmers are becoming hopeless as they see their crops eaten away by the unique armyworm. Their plight will eventually result in the reallocation of finances from other key sector like health and education, and is likely to cause both social and political unrest.
Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac