A government bill introduced four years ago has pitted the cabinet against Parliament's committee on Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries over the MPs' proposed amendments to the bill. The Plant Protection and Health Bill 2010 was tabled in Parliament in April 2010 by the then Agriculture Minister Hope Mwesigye, but it has since been shelved.
It seeks to establish the legal framework for controlling quality and safety of agricultural products, chemicals and seeds in the export trade to promote competitiveness of Uganda's agricultural products.
At least three out of four Ugandans earn a living from agriculture. However, the sector's fortunes continue to dwindle, particularly as a result of low government funding, drastic weather changes, and diseases.
It is perhaps as a result of the struggles agriculture faces that the committee turned around sections of the bill, suggesting amendments that the ministry of Agriculture opposes. Among the controversial suggestions is the establishment of the National Plant Protection Authority to oversee and coordinate efforts aimed at preventing and controlling the spread of pests and diseases in the sector.
"Government, after realizing the challenges faced by the agriculture sector, made an undertaking under the agriculture sector development strategy and investment plan to establish an autonomous body to manage plant protection in Uganda. The establishment of an authority is merely a fulfillment of the undertaking," the committee report reads in part.
The report was due for presentation in Parliament two weeks ago. However, this did not happen because Bright Rwamirama, the minister of state for Animal Industry, contested its presentation on grounds that government had not approved the amendments.
"When we brought the bill here, we were advocating for strengthening of the [crop protection] department, but the [committee] is recommending for the creation of a regulatory authority, which has some financial implications," Rwamirama told The Observer. He argued that establishing an authority would eat into the ministry's resource budget.
However, Committee Chairperson Mathias Kasamba (Kakuuto) begged to differ. In a separate interview, he said there was no way an authority would eat into the ministry's budget.
"An authority is self-accounting. It is a fact that the ministry of Agriculture is not well facilitated. That is why they have delegated their roles to local governments. That is why diseases such as the banana and coffee wilt are spreading like wild fires," he said. "We have to save the sector and the best way is by having an authority to oversee the implementation of the relevant laws and regulations."
Among the challenges highlighted by the committee is the department's lack of capacity to fulfill Uganda's international obligations, and the inability to deal with issues of plant protection, disease and pest identification, and implementation of an early warning system for pests and diseases. Once established, the authority will be expected to establish control points at all entry points in the country.