Uganda’s long-running debate over how to handle the cultivation of GMOs hit another obstacle with the president’s recent refusal to sign a measure passed by the nation’s legislature. It marks the second time President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has withheld his signature from a biosafety measure that would have allowed farmers to grow GMO crops.
In a letter to the speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, Museveni said:
I am not signing this law because it does not favour the inventor and the farming community. I am asking you the legislators to amend the law.
He wants the legislators to include clauses that will guarantee equal sharing of GMO products between the breeders and vendors, provide assurances that GMO and non-GMO seeds will not be mixed, and detail forms of genetic modification, including use of poisonous substances or bacteria when developing GMO products.
It is unclear which steps will be taken by lawmakers, who could attempt to enact the legislation without the president’s signature.
Certainly the mood among the crop researchers and farmers is likely to be low, with many counting on the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act to boost yields and provide protections against the drought, diseases and pests that plague the nation’s growers.
Attempts to modernize the nation’s agriculture system have been going on for years, with the most significant developments happening in the previous two years. The first came when the parliament passed a long-awaited National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill in October 2017. It became the Biosafety Act of 2017.
The president balked at signing the law after questioning some clauses saying they did not favor farmers, particularly those engaged in livestock. He sought clarity on the title, patent rights of indigenous farmers and sanctions for scientists whom he claimed integrate GMOs products with indigenous crops and animals.
The law was returned to parliament, which made adjustments and passed it again as GERA in November 2018.
Yet even while the scientific community awaited a decision by the president, there were concerns over new liability provisions that carried the potential for harsh penalties for researchers.
What’s most disturbing about the act is a clause that deals with liability issues. In the event that there is any harm to the environment or human health, the act presumes guilt for any person or company holding a patent for the genetically engineered product accused of causing the problem.
Scientists speak up
The director of the National Agricultural Research Organisation, Dr. Ambrose Agona, is of the view that scientists must give full support for the proposed law, even with controversial liability provisions. Said Agona:
I am aware that the president did not append his signature to the GERA law. As scientists we are going to embrace the law as it is for now with hope that the strict liability clause will be amended by Uganda’s Parliament.
Dr. Jerome Kubiriba, head of banana research at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Laboratories argued that the strict liability clause will not stop scientists from carrying out their day-to-day research activities. He said:
The current Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act has a specific clause which is strict on scientists but this will not stop us from releasing GMO products to farmers. Anti GMO activists should stop peddling information that scientists want to amend this clause neither can the president do so. As long as the law is not signed we shall continue with our usual research work as before.
Arthur Makara, commissioner for outreach at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation said the liability clause should be reserved for situations considered to be inherently dangerous. Said Makara:
The amendment criminalizes both the farmers and scientists for research and farming work done minus giving them any hearing. Clause 34 of the law states that a patent holder shall be held strictly liable for any harm caused. This means if scientists innovate agricultural products, it will be considered dis-infective before it is tested. They will be held liable for intending to cause harm. This means anyone can raise any claims against them yet the intention to carry out research is to bring food to everyone’s table.
Arthur argues the clause is designed to discourage genetic engineering research and its progress in the agriculture sector. As such, he questions whether the law should even be passed.
Now it appears it is up to the parliament to decide whether it will attempt to enact the law, without the president’s support.
The nation’s constitution offers a vehicle for this in Article 91(6)(b):
(Where the President) refuses to assent to a Bill which has been reconsidered and passed under paragraph (a) or clause (4) of this Article, the Speaker shall, upon the refusal, if the Bill was so passed with the support of at least two-thirds of all MPs, cause a copy of the Bill to be laid before Parliament, and the Bill shall become law without the assent of the President.
Some scientists, however, are questioning whether there is any point in pushing forward with a law that many of them have concerns over.
They note that Uganda has no law stopping farmers from exchanging GMO seeds with neighbors and there is no law stopping release of GMO products in the country.
The scientists said they will also continue working to educate policy makers and all Ugandans on the value of modern biotechnology.
Modern biotechnology products under research
Uganda has reached a milestone in Sub Saharan Africa in terms of GMO research with more than 15 products at confined field trials, said Akile Sunday Igu, program officer for African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE).
Supervision of research is done by research institutes and monitored by Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST). The Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy 2008 provides for an administrative system capable of receiving applications, reviewing and making decisions on research proposals.
The research activities in confined field trials managed by the National Research Institute and Makerere College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences include the East African High land banana (designed to fight bacterial wilt) and cassava (designed to resist the brown streak and mosaic viruses). Others include cotton engineered to resist bollworms, drought-tolerant maize, and maize bred to fight a variety of pests and diseases.