will it not? Uganda teeters on the brink of having a new bill to
regulate genetically modified goods after President Yoweri Museveni
cleared the air about which side he supports, writes JUSTUS LYATUU.
pressure to pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 has started
building up in recent weeks after some parts of the country experienced
food shortages due to the prolonged drought.
Proponents of the bill believe that once
it is passed, the already developed varieties of food crops that are
drought-resistant will be given to farmers to plant and this would end
hunger in Uganda.
President Yoweri Museveni says the bill
will help the country resolve some of the problems the agriculture
sector faces. President Museveni, on March 20, while touring a
demonstration farm at Kawumu State Lodge in Luweero district, is quoted
to have said that the bill should be passed to help improve farming
practices, backed by modern research and technology.
This month alone, the Uganda National
Farmers Federation (UNFFE), researchers from National Crops Resources
Research Institute (NaCCRi) in Namulonge and President Museveni called
upon Parliament to quickly pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill
Farmers said the failure by the
legislators to pass the bill has denied them the chance to access modern
technologies being developed by the National Agricultural Research
Organisation (Naro) centres spread across the country.
Charles Ogang, the president of UNFFE,
said Uganda will go on to lose opportunities to prevail over challenging
agricultural production constraints that could be best addressed using
“Researchers have developed genetically modified
bananas and cassava, which are resistant to drought and diseases such as
bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak but cannot have access to these
varieties without a law in place,” he said.
According to Barbra Zawedde Mugwanya,
the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (Ubic) coordinator at NaCCRI,
farmers continue to suffer tremendous economic losses yet researchers
are developing varieties and shelving them because there is no law.
“There is a lot of food insecurity from
manageable stresses such as pests, diseases and even drought. But we
can’t give solutions because we don’t have the law,” she said.
Mugwanya explained that scientists from
Naro have identified the use of various measures and biotechnology has
been identified as the best solution.
“For instance, we have developed
solutions to banana bacterial wilt, viruses in cassava,
drought-resistant maize and rice. In fact, bacterial wilt disease is
causing Uganda an annual loss of over Shs 600 million,” she said.
Uganda is the only country carrying out
biotechnology research without a law yet it has the largest number of
crops under testing, which include cassava, banana, maize, potato, rice
and sweet potatoes.
“Our neighbours and major trading
partners have put in place regulations to regulate the use of modern
technology. Their products will enter our markets soon in an unregulated
manner,” Mugwanya said. Kenya last year approved the use of GMO seeds.
Antagonists, however, say that the
growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country will
adversely affect Ugandans and make farming more expensive.
Some of the common concerns include loss
of indigenous seeds, failure of the genetically modified seeds to adapt
to the different seasons, and the dominance of the large seed companies
in Uganda’s agriculture sector.
Mugwanya said the World Health
Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and European
Food Safety Association agree that genetically modified foods on the
market are safe.
“We are already consuming genetically
modified products in Uganda. These are foods, beverages and drugs. All
these products are imported from elsewhere and unregulated,” said Anita
Tibasaaga, the media and public relations officer at Ubic.
Harriet Ityang, an official from the
ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, said the bill emphasizes
safety in using biotechnology by providing for measures to be taken to
minimise or avoid risk to human health and the environment arising from
actual or potential contact with a genetically modified organisms.
“The bill provides for every application
for research or general release to contain an emergency plan, complete
with safety measures for unintentional release of a genetically-modified
organism,” she said.
Ityang added: “We need the bill because
Kenya and Rwanda are planting GMOs. We believe with the law, we can
fight drought; also the government has invested over Shs 20bn in
research, this money should not be wasted.”
She explained that Uganda needs a law in
place before improved versions from biotechnology can be passed on to
the farmers for planting. In 2014, the Information Technology and
Innovation Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan research and
educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological
innovation and public policy, said seeds improved through biotechnology
were grown by 16.5 million small farmers in 20 developing countries on
230 million acres (53 percent of the global total).
TREATING REMEDIES, NOT CAUSES
Hakim Baliraine, a board member at
Eastern and Southern Africa Small-scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF- Uganda),
said GMOs will only give short-term solutions that are not sustainable
in the long run. He explained that organic seeds are still relevant but
the challenge is mainly caused by low soil fertility and environmental
“Our soils are infertile due to
mono-cropping. Also, changing weather patterns have affected farming,
whether GMO or organic farming. Rain is needed. What government should
do is to initiate irrigation schemes,” he said.
Baliraine, who is also a member of
Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFISA), explained that
genetically modified crops are highly dependent on fertlisers, which
will increase a cost in farming.
Baliraine said more work on the GMO bill is needed in order to accommodate the wishes of the organic farming community.
“The bill will be good, but not in its
current form. It does not explain what will happen to our seeds if they
are contaminated by GMO seeds...,” he said.
Baliraine added: “We need the bill to
explain how we shall be compensated in case of cross pollination, and
also it should give us a way forward for those doing indigenous