Optimism high as Uganda’s biotech bill gets a “second chance”

Some Ugandan officials are optimistic that the nation’s biotechnology biosafety bill will soon pass, saying that President Museveni’s concerns have been addressed.“The president expressed concern on seven out of 44 clauses in the biosafety bill,” noted Kafeero Sekitoleko, chairman of Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. “These have since been addressed and we’re ready to report back (to Parliament). I want to leave Uganda with a biosafety law by end of my term in May (2018).”

After years of wrangling, Parliament passed the bill in October 2017. But President Museveni referred it to back to lawmakers in December, citing various concerns.

Other officials also sought to allay fears that the country may never have a biosafety law.

“The president’s issues with the biosafety bill have been addressed. So the bill will pass,” reiterated Christopher Kibazanga, state Minister for Agriculture.

His and other supportive voices were heard at the 3rd Biennial National Agricultural Biosciences Conference (NABIO) 2018, where Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, speaking at the official opening, assured guests that the Science and Technology Committee’s report on the bill would be tabled for debate before Parliament breaks off for the Easter holiday.

The announcement prompted jubilation from an evidently excited audience. Uganda’s pro-biotech community is now in a “fingers-crossed” mood as it eagerly awaits results from yesterday’s tabling of the report.

The two-day NABIO conference — organized by the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE), in cooperation with local and global partners in biotech and biosafety — attracted national and international scientists, policy makers, journalists, politicians, farmers and university students.

The biennial event provides a platform for dialogue among bioscience stakeholders to chart out the most strategic way to harness bioscience for national and regional economic transformation.

Almost naturally, Uganda’s biosafety law took center stage as different scientists shared updates on bioscience research and regulatory progress in different countries. The local audience, particularly farmers, expressed frustration about the protracted process of passing Uganda’s law.

“Last season alone, I lost seven acres to cassava brown streak disease (CBSD),” lamented Sarah Nabirye Kiirya, a farmer from Kinyomozi village in the Kiryandongo district in Western Uganda. “Please fast track the enactment of the biosafety law so farmers like me can access virus resistant GM cassava.”

Losses due to CBSD are estimated at $24.2 million annually.She and many other farmers also are recovering from a long drought and a fall armyworm (FAW) invasion that devastated crops countrywide in 2017.

In a bid to restore farmers’ yields, scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organization have since 2007 used genetic engineering to address viral diseases in cassava, bacterial wilt in bananas, drought and pest challenges in maize, nitrogen and water use efficiency in rice, and late blight disease in potatoes.

While Uganda has the highest number of genetically modified (GM) crops under field testing in Africa, efforts to get such products of modern agricultural technology into farmers’ fields have so far been stifled by the absence of an enabling national policy.

“It is very pernicious when everyone, especially non-scientists, claim scientific authority,” argued Amos Mandela, a Ugandan parliamentarian. He was addressing widespread misinformation circulated by anti-GMO and environmental groups, which has at least in part been responsible for the delayed passing of the biosafety law.

As the conference concluded, one overreaching sentiment remained: Is this it? Could this be the time when farmers like Sarah are finally given the opportunity to choose better performing GM crops? As it stands, they can only remain optimistic.

Written by Joshua Raymond Muhumuza in Cornell Alliance for Science. He is a research assistant with Uganda Biosciences Information Center. See original article link here.