24 March 2018

Uganda: MPs Want Speedy Passing of the Biosafety Bill

When scientists are carrying out research to get a solution to a problem be it in health, agriculture, environment and engineering sector, it is important for the public to give them the necessary support, more so policy makers and other government authorities must be at the forefront.

Uganda's soils have lost fertility and agricultural produce keeps reducing as years go by. This means our farmers need improved hybrid seed and improved animal breed and this is possible through application of biotechnology tools.

This was the general outcry of a section of legislators who attended the third Biennial National Agricultural Biosciences (NABIO2018) Conference with the theme harnessing Biosciences for economic transformation in Kampala recently.

Views of Uganda's legislators

Rakai Member of Parliament, Mr Amos Mandera blamed activists who tend to argue with scientists and yet they do not understand the subject matter.

He said that the tropical climate in Africa and particularly Uganda favours breeding of pests which end up destroying plantations which is not the case in temperate climate in Europe.

The Chairperson of the sectorial committee of Science and Technology Robert Sekitoleko said that before his term expires in May 2018 the Biosafety Act 2017 will be in place.

To him, it is time for Uganda's scientists who have been developing GMO crops for all these years to roll the products to farmers for commercialisation and for this to happen, the law has to be ascended to by the president which he promised will take place any time.

The former Minister for Energy Syda Namirembe Bbumba emphasised that Uganda needs the Biosafety law to be in place in order to regulate GMO products which are already in the country especially those imported in processed form.

"I appreciate GMO products because it will help the country in increasing the agricultural productivity level thereby causing growth in our GDP. But now if we don't have a law in place it will hinder the country from this opportunity yet we are a country dependent on agriculture as its key economic activity. I do not support people who are opposed to application of science and technology because we can never develop as a country minus embracing this sector," she said.

The African approach

The Director African Union New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Dr Jeremy Tinga Ouedraogo giving the key note address emphasized that a number of African countries have come on board to conduct research using application of modern biotechnology and countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Malawi and Swaziland are due to commercialize BT cotton.

This he said will help the farmers with the challenge of fall army worm which is proving to be disastrous to the crop.

He explained that Uganda has good land enough to produce agricultural produce to feed 200 million and this is possible through application of appropriate technology in the sector.

To him it is important for African countries to join the revolution in using GMO crop seed to increase farmer crop yield in order to feed the growing population of the continent.

He explained that Brazil and Thailand transformed the agriculture sector by ensuring farmers are engaged in growing GM soybean and BT maize causing drastic increase in the country's GDP growth rate.

Biotechnology research in Uganda

Scientists in the agricultural sector have been carrying out research work in a bid to come up with genetically modified products mainly those at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge, the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) Kawanda and Makerere College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

It ranges from East African High land banana against banana bacterial wilt, black sigatoka, nematodes and nutritional improvement of Vitamin A and iron banana, cassava research against Cassava Brown Streak Virus and Cassava Mosaic Virus.

Others include research work on Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) cotton for herbicide-tolerant cotton as well as the boll worm infection which was halted due to challenges of availability of seed, drought tolerant maize varieties and resistance against the ball worm, Irish potato against Bacterial blight wilt, Rice research for growth in soils with less nitrogen and salted soil and Soybean tests against leaf and stripe rust diseases in Roundup.

It is a requirement in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity which is an international agreement on Biosafety of research and use of GMO products that all countries engaged in the same world over must have a law in place to regulate the technology.

It became into effect in 2003 and Uganda is signatory to the convention. The Biosafety Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.

Biotechnology Research in Ethiopia

The director Biosafety affairs directorate in Ethiopia Dr Assefa Gudina Muleta explains that his country already has a biosafety law in place meaning release of GM crops in the country is not a major problem.

The law has been in place since 2009 but was amended to remove strict closes in 2015. This has enabled scientists in Ethiopia to embark on testing BT cotton over the last two years and the results show resistance to the ball worm and fall army worm.

Dr Assef contends that any time farmers in Ethiopia will start growing GM BT cotton because the Ethiopian Initiative of Agriculture Research has already submitted an application to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change for release of GM cotton.

To him this is a good move because the country has prospects of the cotton usage in the textile industry. The country is already growing cotton on 135,000 hectares of land but has a potential of growing the crop on 3 million hectares of land.

The country has also been given permission to breed the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) with resistance to stem borer, fall army worm and drought tolerance.

Ministry of Science Technology and Innovations

The Minister of Science, Technology and Innovations Dr Elioda Tumwesigye in a noted that it is important for the country to embrace new advances in scientific innovations in order for the country to move forward in development.

"We need new ideas in the field of use of technologies and innovations to tackle challenges farmers are faced with in the agricultural sector such as climate change. Biotechnology in general and modern biotechnology application is not only restricted to agriculture but it cuts across tackling challenges of environmental degradation and health challenges. It is the reason why scientists invented insulin for patients suffering from diabetes using transgenic approach," he explained.

Giving the statistics he noted that by 2100, many people on the planet will be Africans. In East Africa the population will be 412 million by 2050 and Uganda have 105 million people. To feed this population agriculture has to be done differently.

Africa will benefit in terms of trading its agricultural produce since countries have already signed the free trade zone agreement, he said.

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