Parliament on Wednesday began scrutinizing the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, which has been on the shelves for more than three years.
The bill was first tabled in parliament in 2013 by then minister of state in charge of Planning Matia Kasaija. Its introduction drew both praise and sharp criticism from people against the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country.
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 introduction of GMOs will wipe out Uganda's largely organic farming industry.
On Wednesday, the committee on Science and Technology presented two reports of their findings on the bill, pitting the pro and anti-GMO legislators against each other.
In the main report, committee chairman, Robert Kafeero Ssekitoleko (Nakifuma), said the committee had endorsed the bill because several GMO crops are already being researched on in Uganda and are in advanced stages. Kafeero said the enactment of an enabling law will enhance the safe development of modern biotechnology.
"The biggest challenges are how to adapt the production of food in view of the climate changes, and how to develop further the role of agricultural biotechnology in combating the global challenge. Crop varieties that are more resilient to drought, flooding, saline or acid soils and temperature extremes resulting from climate change may be needed, and adaptation-related technologies, including biotechnology, may play their part," the main report reads in part.
The report states that the intention of the proposed law is to provide for a regulatory framework that facilitates the safe development and application of modern biotechnology in Uganda.
However, two MPs on the committee, Atkins Katusabe (Bukonzo West) and Lee Denis Oguzu (Maracha), authored a minority report, raising concerns about genetic pollution, which may arise due to cross pollination, hence wiping out the traditional breeds and development of crop varieties that risk affecting soil fertility.
The two MPs also outlined the risk of external influence, brought on by the varied interest in the introduction of GMOs in the country through foreign companies.
Katusabe said that between 2010 and 2011, financial resources for agricultural biotechnological research were largely received from philanthropic organizations and intergovernmental organizations, while government only contributed three per cent
He said amendments by the committee did not address the risk of external influence, which necessitates a comprehensive regulatory impact assessment to critically assess the adverse risks of external influence and financial sustainability of advancing biotechnology systems.
"The country's progress in biotechnology relies on donors who advance their own agenda or interests, which may include extending risk of GMO development away from their home countries. The bill should be referred back to the sponsor," the minority report states.
However, Kafeero said once the law is enacted, a national focal point and authority, as well as a national biosafety committee will be created to regulate the use of GMOs in the country.
President Yoweri Museveni, while touring a demonstration farm at Kawumu State Lodge in Luweero district on March 20, said the bill will help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture sector faces, including drought.
Museveni said the bill should be passed to help improve farming practices, backed by modern research and technology.
Peter Wamboga-Mugirya, a pro-GMO activist, told The Observer that the legislation should have been introduced years ago, to help combat the growing challenges in the agricultural sector.
Citing the long spells of drought, coupled with the recent attack on crops by the fall armyworms, Mugirya said Ugandans are cold towards biotechnology because they have not been well informed about its benefits.
"When virulent viruses attack crops, what can scientists do after they have applied all conventional methods to fight these diseases? Their best shot is at genetic engineering to counter these problems. Biotechnology gives advanced solutions; so, let us help our farmers," Mugirya said in a phone interview.