Uncertain future of Uganda’s GMO law spurs anxiety, confusion among biotech supporters

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Credit: Christian Science Monitor
Anxiety and confusion have gripped Uganda’s scientific community and advocates for modern agricultural biotechnology as the constitutional deadline has passed for the president to sign into law the recently-passed Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA).

The measure was approved by parliament in November 2018 and was submitted to the president’s office in January. Yet it lies unsigned, well past the 30-day period specified by the nation’s Constitution. If not signed during that period, the measure is supposed to be returned to parliament with an explanation, and what should be amended or corrected.

There has been recent speculation that the measure could become law, even without the president’s signature. According to the Cornell Alliance for Science, the  Ugandan constitution offers an option, should the president fail to sign or return a bill to parliament:  “[T]he President shall be taken to have assented to the bill and at the expiration of that period, the Speaker shall cause a copy of the bill to be laid before Parliament and the bill shall become law without the assent of the President.”

As of yet, however, the speaker of the parliament has not take this step.

It is not uncommon in Uganda for this process to be time consuming. Yet, observers are unsure what the delay means.

Phillip Chemonges, biotech scientist and coordinator of the nation’s chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, expressed anxiety with the state of affairs at the president’s office. OFAB is a program set up between the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology. Said Chemonges:

In an interview with the GLP, Chemonges said the scientific community in support of biotech and genetic engineering in Uganda has no direct channel of communication with the president’s office, unlike anti-GMO activists who have allies there:

If they influenced passage of GERA with the Strict Liability clause in it to stifle biotechnology-innovations, how sure are we that they’ve not also interfered with the assent process?

He also said that a once supportive political environment with openly pro-biotech political champions has become unpredictable. Between 2013 and 2016, Ugandan President Gen. Yoweri Museveni openly supported passage of the then National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill. The measure aimed to permit development and commercialization of GM crop technologies in Uganda. The Ugandan leader’s championship of  GM crop technologies was encouraging for scientists.

Yet, when parliament finally passed the measure as the National Biosafety Act [2017] in  October 2017, the president changed his stance, declining to sign it. He raised a number of objections, including arguments that GM-crops could lead to loss of biodiversity. His reversal of support left Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, minister for science, technology and innovation, Vincent Ssempijja, minister for agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, among the last political shields and voices for the science of modern agricultural biotechnology.

A concerned scientist talking to GLP on condition of anonymity because he’s not allowed to speak to the media, stated:

We who support biotechnology, have been pushed aside or behind by an anti-GMO alliance of politicians and activists in highly placed public offices. We’re now on the defensive against a wide-array of accusations yet we don’t have space to explain nor ears, to listen to us.

Even if this latest version of a nationwide biotech regulatory framework is signed into law, there are those who have concerns about some of its finer points. Of particular concern is the Strict Liability [SL] clause, say sources at the state-owned NARO, the institution mandated to do crop, fisheries, forestry and livestock research and development.

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The provision deals with Liability for Damages,and states:

A person who owns a patent in a GEM [Genetically-Engineered Material] is strictly liable for any harm, injury, or loss caused directly or indirectly by such a GEM to the community, livelihoods, indigenous knowledge, systems or technologies, environment, biodiversity, ecosystem, species of flora and fauna, human or animal health.

There are other issues scientists are apprehensive about, and they hope to eventually propose amendments to them. That’s what NARO Director-General Ambrose Agona told House Speaker Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga in February.

The speaker was touring the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), home to Africa’s largest number of GM confined field trials. Among the crops being tested: maize tolerant to drought and engineered to resist stem/stalk borer-pests; cassava resistant to the twin-viral Cassava Brown Streak and Cassava Mosaic diseases; and sweet potatoes resistant to the Sweet Potato Virus.

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These are part of nearly a dozen modern biotech-based research investments—much of it now stuck at the trial stage. They also constitute Africa’s largest modern agricultural biotechnology research and development (R&D) work. Speaker Kadaga, a farmer and lawyer said she was impressed with what she saw. She shared the same to parliament a few weeks later—rallying legislators to support NARO’s research.

According to NARO’s Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (UBIC), the East African nation annually suffers a combined loss of over $429 million in banana, cassava, maize, rice and Irish potato crops destroyed by a range of diseases and pests.

Conventional breeding has proven insufficient at addressing these challenges, hence scientists adopting new biotech/genetic engineering breeding techniques that require a law to permit release of GE products.

Uganda, unlike other Eastern African counterparts, has no leading political champion at the highest levels of government. In Kenya, for instance, President Uhuru Kenyatta has identified biotechnology as part of the nation’s Big-4 Agenda – as a way to reignite cotton production and revamp the textile industry. Kenya’s northern and north-eastern neighbors, Sudan and Ethiopia, have adopted GM-favorable regulatory regimes, under which field trials and commercialization are taking place.

Chemonges argues that the leadership seen in those nations is what Uganda needs. One potential problem for Uganda, he said, is that much of the research has focused on GM crops that would be eaten by humans – something that has given anti GMO opponents and easy target.

He notes that Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya have, instead, focused on non-food crops:

They want to address domestic textile demands and tackle unemployment, via-biotech-for-industrialization. Yet they also have serious food insecurity issues, causing unrest across the region. But government officials avoid deploying GM-technology to tackle food insecurity, because they fear they’ll suffer evil underhand attacks by activists.

Peter Wamboga-Mugirya is a Ugandan freelance science journalist, with a focus on agricultural, energy, environmental, health and food security issues. Follow him on Twitter @wambotwit

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