31 October 2017

Uganda: Tears and Cheers Over New GMO Law

Kampala — Days after parliament quietly passed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, widely known as the 'GMO Bill', in early October, Meg Hilbert Jaquay, the Managing Director of Jakana Foods Limited, remains sad. Her company exports 30 metric tonnes of organic dried fruits to U.S., Europe, Asia, and across Africa every year.

But, she says, all this is now under threat as Uganda will become less competitive for the fastest growing food market segment in U.S. and Europe.

"GMO products are not allowed under either the Organic Standard or Fair Trade standards," Meg told The Independent, "The rest of the world is moving away from this old technology, and instead of Uganda looking to the future it is still in catch-up mode."

Meg says because of government's failure to recognise the organic sector, Uganda which was second in the world has now dropped to fourth, and it may drop further unless the government agrees to pass the Organic Policy to protect the sector.

Andrew Ndawula Kalema who is a certified organic farmer in Nakaseke District says the passing of the Bill is a blow to organic farmers.

"Uganda is one of the countries which have been having a comparative advantage of exporting organic products but with passing of the Bill we have now lost this advantage," Kalema says.

He says the passing of the Bill was possible not because of its merits and how much it's going to benefit the country but because of the huge financial muscle of the multinational GMO seed companies behind it and who will be the main beneficiaries not Ugandans.

Patrick Luganda, the Executive Director of Media link, an organisation which links farmers with the media and trains climate journalists said the way the Bill was passed is suspect.

"That was like smuggling the Bill. Why pass it at such a time when members are charged over the age limit debate. And what a coincidence that similar laws are being pushed in Malawi, Kenya, and Ghana," Luganda said.

Luganda further explained that in Malawi the government has even made it illegal to plant indigenous varieties and farmers have to plant only the GMO seeds which are expensive.

Luganda was describing how the Bill was passed on Oct. 04, at a time when the Speaker of Parliament when all attention was on the so-called 'age-limit Bill'. One side of parliament, which is supposed to be occupied by the opposition, was empty as many of them had been expelled and the others were boycotting sittings in solidarity. Thomas Tayebwa (Ruhindi North) wanted the Bill's passing delayed until the opposition members returned but he was overruled.

President Yoweri Museveni's earlier utterances backing the Bill appear to have swayed the decision.

Scientists excited, CSOs to sue

Museveni said the GMO law is to "help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector is facing". He is now expected to sign it into law as soon as it gets to his table.

The passing of the Bill sent the pro-GMO scientists into celebration.

The list of the 135 "stakeholders" whom the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by Nakifuma County MP, Eng. Robert Kafeero Ssekitoleko, interacted with to craft the law reads like the Who-is-Who list of Uganda's scientists; from government departments like NARO, UNSCT, Uganda Virus Research Institute, National Drug Authority, Uganda National Bureau of Standards, universities and others.

But, although three farmers are on the list, the Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFF), a body which claims to be an umbrella body of all farmers' associations in the country, is conspicuously missing. Its Executive Secretary, Augustine Mwendya, had earlier told The Independent that he backs the Bill.

Dr. Godfrey Asea, the director of National Crops Resources Research Institute (NACRRI), one of the research institutes under NARO in Namulonge in Wakiso district congratulated Parliament for passing the Bill.

"We now have a framework to conduct environment release and research outside the institutes," he said.

Erastus Nsubuga, the chairperson of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, called the law "a great achievement" that will help scientists work within the country.

CSOs threaten court action

But Ellady Muyambi, an environmental scientist with the nonprofit Uganda Network on Toxic Free Malaria; one of the civil society organisations which had been fighting the Bill, accuses the scientists at National Research Organisation (NARO) of being bankrolled by global seed companies who want to dominate the market and who sponsor their research and study abroad.

"We are definitely going to court to quash the Bill," he told The Independent, "We should already have gone to court after Parliament passed the Bill but our lawyers advised us that we can't until the President assents to the Bill and it becomes law."

Muyambi says the MPs "passed a law they don't understand and don't know the implications of."

The Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) say the Bill is merely a legal regulatory regime to allow in GMOs without safeguards and they pointed out gaps in the Bill that needed to be blocked to improve it.

But according to a statement by the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, many of these were rejected.

With threats to have issues of this recently passed Bill taken to court, it looks like the five year running battle between pro GMO and opponents is not about to end.

If, as expected, the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill becomes law, it will clear the way for use of biotechnology to modify animals and plants in Uganda or import similarly treated products.

Normally, the argument has been, the purpose will be positive; to improve yields, breeds, and purpose. The biosafety element of the law means the development, transfer, application, and application of plants and animals will be done in a safe manner.

Foreign influence?

But the controversy which has followed the Bill since it was first tabled on February 05, 2013 followed it to the Committee on Science and Technology which considered it and two of the 33-member committee disagreed with the majority and authored a minority report. They complained that there was limited consultation on the Bill, it was prepared without regard to impact on the country, and focused only on agricultural biotechnology, and had external influence in its preparation.

Ssekitoleko, laboured to respond to allegations of foreign sponsorship of the Bill, especially on foreign trips. The Committee report names six countries including Kenya, South Africa, India, Brazil, Argentina and US which members of his committee visited for benchmarking studies on biotechnology.

Ssekitoleko says only the Brazil trip got money from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) for part of the expense.

Still, UNCST was in the end denied the regulatory mandate for the biotechnology sector.

Ssekitoleko was also quizzed on why his committee visited only GMO 'success stories' and not Burkina Faso where GM cotton backfired. He said Burkina Faso never came up during the Committee discussions.

According to its framers, the Bill is intended to be a regulatory framework that facilitates the safe development and application of biotechnology in Uganda. But opponents of the Bill claim genetically modified foods are harmful to humans and that they are used by big agribusiness firms to control global seed markets and farmers around the world.

The Bill faced opposition from MP outside the committee also.

Gen. Pecos Kutesa (UPDF) warned that the Bill is a threat not only in Uganda, but the rest of Africa, because, he said, "one who creates seeds can create artificial seeds". Thomas Tayebwa (Ruhindi North) said the Bill was sponsored by foreign agencies.

"The European Union whose market we are targeting is totally against the production of genetically modified products in favour of organic products. The GMO industry, which we are trying to invest in, is going down and Ugandans are going to lose out." Tayebwa is reported to have said.

Muyambi said Uganda's agricultural problem was political and not absence of a law to promote GMOs as the pro GMO lobby argued.

"The agricultural sector is underfunded and President Museveni says he putting the money on building roads. Even with the GMO law in place the agricultural sector will never be redeemed under this government which has failed to prioritise agriculture," Muyambi says.

He says Museveni's government sidelines technocrats and instead hands the agricultural sector to the army and cites Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), a project under President Museveni's brother; Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh, where billions of shillings have been invested to alleviate poverty through agriculture.

On the argument of scientists developing genetically modified drought resistant varieties like NARO's Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project in Kasese, Muyambi asked why they do the field trials in Kasese where there is water for irrigation and not in Karamoja which is dry to prove the drought resistance of their maize.

Muyambi says the MPs "passed a law they don't understand and don't know the implications of." He cited other examples; including the Plant Varieties Act and Geographical Indications Act.

"Can you imagine the Geographical Indications Act stipulates that if one, for instance develops a variety of irish potatoes to be grown in Kabale he or she can patent it and it wouldn't be grown in any other part of the country without the owner of the patent being paid?" he said.

Muyambi also says apart from the Bill being unconstitutional the timing of the passing of the Bill was not proper as members of Parliament were heated up by the age limit debate.

But Dr. Barbara Zawedde, the co-ordinator of the Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (NARO information hub) reportedly said Uganda has capacity to regulate biotechnology.

"We can now also choose what we want to use in modern biotechnology in agriculture, medicine, environment management, and medicine," she said.

Some Contentious Articles in GMO Bill

Labeling and identification of GMO materials in the market and in use in Uganda is complicated because much as it is very easy for a supermarket to label mangoes or any fruits it's selling, a woman selling a basket of mangoes on her head will most likely not put a label on the basket that they are a GMO product.

The National Gene Bank in which all genetic material, indigenous, or otherwise required shall be kept and preserved should be an independent authority and not under NARO which promotes GMOs.

CSOs and other stakeholders want declaration of GMO free areas so as to prevent pollution on indigenous varieties by GMOs.

Lack of public participation and awareness of the Bill.

Penalties and offences of GMOs rules are laughable and big multinational companies will breach and pay.

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