Will it, will it not? Uganda teeters on the brink of having a new bill to regulate genetically modified goods after President Yoweri Museveni cleared the air about which side he supports, writes JUSTUS LYATUU.
The pressure to pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 has started building up in recent weeks after some parts of the country experienced food shortages due to the prolonged drought.
Proponents of the bill believe that once it is passed, the already developed varieties of food crops that are drought-resistant will be given to farmers to plant and this would end hunger in Uganda.
President Yoweri Museveni says the bill will help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector faces. President Museveni, on March 20, while touring a demonstration farm at Kawumu State Lodge in Luweero district, is quoted to have said that the bill should be passed to help improve farming practices, backed by modern research and technology.
This month alone, the Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE), researchers from National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCCRi) in Namulonge and President Museveni called upon Parliament to quickly pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012.
Farmers said the failure by the legislators to pass the bill has denied them the chance to access modern technologies being developed by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) centres spread across the country.
Charles Ogang, the president of UNFFE, said Uganda will go on to lose opportunities to prevail over challenging agricultural production constraints that could be best addressed using technology.
"Researchers have developed genetically modified bananas and cassava, which are resistant to drought and diseases such as bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak but cannot have access to these varieties without a law in place," he said.
According to Barbra Zawedde Mugwanya, the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (Ubic) coordinator at NaCCRI, farmers continue to suffer tremendous economic losses yet researchers are developing varieties and shelving them because there is no law.
"There is a lot of food insecurity from manageable stresses such as pests, diseases and even drought. But we can't give solutions because we don't have the law," she said.
Mugwanya explained that scientists from Naro have identified the use of various measures and biotechnology has been identified as the best solution.
"For instance, we have developed solutions to banana bacterial wilt, viruses in cassava, drought-resistant maize and rice. In fact, bacterial wilt disease is causing Uganda an annual loss of over Shs 600 million," she said.
Uganda is the only country carrying out biotechnology research without a law yet it has the largest number of crops under testing, which include cassava, banana, maize, potato, rice and sweet potatoes.
"Our neighbours and major trading partners have put in place regulations to regulate the use of modern technology. Their products will enter our markets soon in an unregulated manner," Mugwanya said. Kenya last year approved the use of GMO seeds.
Antagonists, however, say that the growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country will adversely affect Ugandans and make farming more expensive.
Some of the common concerns include loss of indigenous seeds, failure of the genetically modified seeds to adapt to the different seasons, and the dominance of the large seed companies in Uganda's agriculture sector.
Mugwanya said the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and European Food Safety Association agree that genetically modified foods on the market are safe.
"We are already consuming genetically modified products in Uganda. These are foods, beverages and drugs. All these products are imported from elsewhere and unregulated," said Anita Tibasaaga, the media and public relations officer at Ubic.
Harriet Ityang, an official from the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, said the bill emphasizes safety in using biotechnology by providing for measures to be taken to minimise or avoid risk to human health and the environment arising from actual or potential contact with a genetically modified organisms.
"The bill provides for every application for research or general release to contain an emergency plan, complete with safety measures for unintentional release of a genetically-modified organism," she said.
Ityang added: "We need the bill because Kenya and Rwanda are planting GMOs. We believe with the law, we can fight drought; also the government has invested over Shs 20bn in research, this money should not be wasted."
She explained that Uganda needs a law in place before improved versions from biotechnology can be passed on to the farmers for planting. In 2014, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy, said seeds improved through biotechnology were grown by 16.5 million small farmers in 20 developing countries on 230 million acres (53 percent of the global total).
TREATING REMEDIES, NOT CAUSES
Hakim Baliraine, a board member at Eastern and Southern Africa Small-scale Farmers' Forum (ESAFF- Uganda), said GMOs will only give short-term solutions that are not sustainable in the long run. He explained that organic seeds are still relevant but the challenge is mainly caused by low soil fertility and environmental degradation.
"Our soils are infertile due to mono-cropping. Also, changing weather patterns have affected farming, whether GMO or organic farming. Rain is needed. What government should do is to initiate irrigation schemes," he said.
Baliraine, who is also a member of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFISA), explained that genetically modified crops are highly dependent on fertlisers, which will increase a cost in farming.
Baliraine said more work on the GMO bill is needed in order to accommodate the wishes of the organic farming community.
"The bill will be good, but not in its current form. It does not explain what will happen to our seeds if they are contaminated by GMO seeds...," he said.
Baliraine added: "We need the bill to explain how we shall be compensated in case of cross pollination, and also it should give us a way forward for those doing indigenous knowledge research."