24 July 2017

Uganda: First Lady Mediates in GMO Bill Debate

Photo: The Observer
First Lady Janet Museveni

The First Lady, Janet Museveni, last week mediated efforts between those for and against the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, which has divided MPs, scientists and civil society actors.

The bill seeks to provide for development and general release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Uganda through a regulatory framework to facilitate safe development and application of biotechnology.

The bill, which was first tabled in Parliament in 2013 by then minister of state in charge of Planning Matia Kasaija, has drawn both praise and sharp criticism from sections of the public. Impeccable sources told The Observer that Janet hosted the meeting on July 17 at State House, Nakasero.

At least 20 MPs, including Robert Kafeero Ssekitoleeko (Nakifuma), who chairs the Science and Technology committee, which handled the bill in the 9th Parliament as well as Dr Elioda Tumwesigye, the minister in charge of Science, Technology and Innovation attended.

Among the presenters was Dr Joseph Okia, a prominent scientist who is opposed to the bill. Okia reportedly outlined the health and environmental effects that GMOs have caused in developed countries.

"Dr Okia was very clear on the health effects of GMOs such as cancers, allergies, as well as gastrointestinal complications. He was critical on the future of agricultural land if GMO crops are introduced here. He wondered why Uganda is rushing into flooding its market with GMOs yet other countries are running away from them," one of the sources told The Observer.

While proponents of the bill believe that once passed, the already developed varieties of food crops that are drought-resistant will be given to farmers to plant and end hunger in Uganda, those against the bill have severally complained that the introduction of GMOs will wipe out Uganda's largely organic farming industry.

Some of the countries which have since banned GMO crops include Sri Lanka, Sweden, Germany, Algeria, Norway, Bolivia, Brazil, Italy and Poland.

"He [Okia] emphasized that GMO foods are more expensive than organic foods and given that a number of Uganda's trade partners have banned the products, who would Uganda sell the GMO crops to?" another source revealed.

During the meeting, the sources said some NARO scientists and MPs who openly support the bill, were tight-lipped. Some of the legislators after the meeting reportedly started pondering on whether they should continue supporting the bill.

When contacted, Ssekitooleko revealed that he presented the contents of his committee report. He explained that the First Lady also invited him to give an update on the bill, since she had been unable to make it to the committee sittings. Ssekitoleko told The Observer that Janet may have been misled on the objective of the bill, seen by many to promote GMOs.

"At first, the meeting began as a move to intimidate me but I made my presentation, which was appreciated by the meeting. I know the first lady is being misled by some people because many argue on the matter but don't grasp the matter," Ssekitoleko explained.

According to other sources who attended the meeting, Janet was neutral and she did not express support for any side to the GMO bill debate.

"She did not take any sides during our meeting and listened attentively. Her issue and focus was for the MPs to listen to the presenters and make an informed decision on what is good for the country in regard to the bill," one of the sources disclosed.

BILL ON HOLD

Last month, Jacob Oulanyah, the deputy speaker of parliament, announced during a plenary sitting that the bill had been struck off the order paper, pending consultation in cabinet. This followed a stormy NRM caucus meeting, where majority of MPs opposed the bill and asked government to throw it out.

Earlier, the committee, in its report, had endorsed the bill, saying several GMO crops are already being researched on in Uganda and are in advanced stages, only awaiting the enactment of an enabling law to enhance the safe development of modern biotechnology.

President Yoweri Museveni, while opening the annual Jinja agricultural show on July 18, reiterated his support towards the proposed law, turning his guns to legislators for failing to pass the bill.

We have now been told that the matter is scheduled to be returned to the NRM caucus for further discussion.

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