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By Evelyne Naikoba | 19 September 2019

Weeks ago, the news headlines stated that President Yoweri K. Museveni had declined signing the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Bill into law. In a letter written to the Speaker of Parliament Rt. Hon. Rebecca A. Kadaga, among other things, the President expressed his concern that the Bill fronts external interests from foreigners; whom he did not make mention of. It took no less than a week, for the ‘external influence’ to come out breathing “fire and brimstone”.

On 30th August 2019, the Embassy of the United States of America (USA) on their Facebook page strongly expressed their disappointment about the failure to enact the Genetically Engineered Regulatory Act stating that this technology has the potential to help Ugandan farmers to greatly improve their crop yield, feed millions, and improve livelihoods. They reiterated their commitment to working with Ugandan scientists in the development of biotech crops to ensure food security and the economic prosperity of Ugandans.

If only the President had not expressed his concerns about the external influences, one wonders whether this discussion might have come to light. What is even more baffling is that the US Embassy is concerned about food security for Ugandans when in fact they often kept a deaf ear when the country was experiencing famine in some regions. One wonders what the urgency is with this proposed technology.

It is important to note that all the promoters of this Bill, who front the science before the politics, are silent on the backbone of production, i.e. water and land, but will talk about increase in crop yields owing to their resistance. Granted, GMOs are resistant to pests and this is because plants mixed with a bacteria gene, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) produce a toxin that kills insects which try to feed on them. Now without labouring with the science, a plant able to kill an insect by deductive reasoning can easily kill a human being.

Other concerns raised by the President were; benefit sharing which tackles the monopoly of patent rights by researchers who have no regard for the indigenous communities that develop the original materials, co-mingling of GMO materials/seeds with non-GMO counterparts which should spell out the isolation measures and distances applicable for those involved in GMOs and the penalties that apply to anyone who fails to comply, the scope of the law and the use of poisons and dangerous viruses and bacteria among other reasons. Some of the reasons highlighted were the same reasons why the President did not assent to this Bill when it was first presented to him.

The GMO Bill now defers to Parliament for further consideration of the President’s concerns and recommendations. This very Parliament passed the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill, 2018 (an updated copy of which is yet to be accessed by members of the general public; not to mention key relevant actors) in November 2018. This Bill previously known as the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill sought to provide a regulatory framework for safe development and application of biotechnology and release of GMOs. Suffice to note that this Bill was earlier passed on 4th October 2017 but was sent back for review by the President who declined to assent to it. There is now a looming possibility that this Bill may be enacted if tabled before Parliament again owing to the provision under Article 91(5) of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda as amended; giving Parliament the mandate to pass the Bill into law with the support of at least two-thirds of all Members of Parliament (which the ruling party can raise), if the President refuses to assent to it for the second time (like he has). One awaits to see if Parliament will evoke this provision. This will without a doubt present a win win situation for the President, since he now does not have to face the public outrage regarding this Bill even if it is passed into law; given that we are drawing closer to election time, or face the fury of the foreign peddlers of this idea who want it to be passed in haste.

Now beyond our national law, the Union for Protection of New Plant Varieties Act which is a global law bars anyone from replanting or sharing the seeds obtained from GMO seed companies, which means that farmers will always have to go back to the manufacturers of these seeds, and those who do not adhere risk being prosecuted. This is unlike the natural arrangement where the seed is in the plant and can be replanted or even shared. Moreover, these seeds have been injected with a terminator gene which prevents successful subsequent planting.

Although the President believes as implied in his letter to the Speaker that addressing the issues he highlighted about the Bill will allow the nation to have a Genetic Engineering law that is pro-science, pro-people and pro-development, this is far from the truth. Nations that have enacted laws guiding on GMOs like Brazil which is now embroiled in lawsuits against the inventors of the technology and Indonesia which had a lawsuit on the same; leading to an amendment of their laws in a bid to protect their farmers, are testament to this.

Evidently, there are various concerns which our politicians are not addressing, either deliberately or otherwise; making us believe that this Bill is in the interest of the public and that it is fully funded by the government which is not true as we have come to learn from other countries where the companies that have invested in this technology come back to recover their money. God forbid, but in case the Bill is passed into law; we should expect a lot of monitoring of farmers, those with GMOs and those without. In cases involving profit making companies, we can expect just about anything, including criminalizing anyone, who might be found with any GMO plant and yet does not have the authorization from the manufactures just because pollen moved from the nearby GMO garden; because these companies invest to make profits.

GMOs also have a direct impact on the soils. It is hard to get better yields from soils if one decides to revert back to non-GMOs, but scientists have deliberately refused to address this. Many developed countries like the USA (possibly unbeknownst to the US Mission in Uganda), China, Canada, India to mention but a few, do not allow GMO crops to cross their borders. Ugandans can as well forget about exporting food crops; should we start producing GMO crops on a large scale. This therefore is not and can never be pro development at all.

Whether the current government has interests in this Bill becoming law, given that most of the members pushing it belong to the ruling party, or whether there is an invisible hand which is no longer ‘invisible’, pushing envelopes with ‘green money’ below the table to our Members of Parliament, we can only wait to see.

GMO seeds/materials first had mention as a solution to the banana wilt problem (whose genesis is by the way questionable) in western Uganda in about 2004. Though research centers like Kawanda Reseach Centre have been developing GMOs for over a decade now, a law to legalize their use should be the least of our concerns right now. Ugandans are far better off concentrating on improving the fertility of our soils and encouraging the masses to engage in active farming on a large scale. Incentives to this end such as leasing dormant large pieces of land owned by individuals, communities or the State, subsidized prices on agricultural inputs, and encouraging families to engage in large scale farming for pay, are of course necessary.

Whether to legalise genetic engineering/modification or not in Uganda is a matter that our representatives in Parliament must carefully consider; given the far reaching implications and consequences. What is most disturbing however is that the masses or constituencies they represent have no idea what this technology is about and what it would truly mean for their lives politically, socially and economically. A nationwide consultation is absolutely necessary and urgent.