Uganda Parliament Passes Bill To Promote Use Of Genetically Modified Materials, Biotech

KAMPALA, Uganda — Several genetically modified crops that are more resilient to drought, flooding, saline or acid soils and temperature extremes resulting from climate change are already being researched in Uganda and are in advanced stages. The enactment of an enabling law, the Uganda National Biosafety Bill 2017, is intended to enhance the development of modern biotechnology.

The Parliament of Uganda passed the National Biosafety Bill 2017 [pdf] in October. The Act allows farmers and plant breeders to access genetically modified plant materials (GMOs) and other tools of genetic engineering.

This also sets stage for agricultural products that are under confined field trials in the country to proceed to open field trials before they are commercialized.

GMO field trials in Uganda are currently conducted under the National Council of Science and Technology Act 1990, which established the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) in 1996. NBC registers and permits confined field studies and ensures adherence to the guidelines and safety to humans and the environment.

Addressing the media after passing the law, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovations, Elioda Tumwesigye, outlined other uses of the Bill: “Protect our borders from unauthorised entry of GMOs; Protect our people from consuming unsafe biotechnology products; Alleviate our farmers from the devastation and impoverishment often caused by crop diseases, animal diseases, uncontrolled use of expensive pesticides and unpredictable weather and drought occasioned by climate change.”

Other uses the minister outlined include: “Give the country opportunities to use all science and technological options including modern biotechnology tools to handle crop and animal diseases and other stresses that cannot be effectively handled by conventional tools.”

The Bill, according to Tumwesigye, will “support our scientists to fully and safely utilize their advanced knowledge and capabilities in biotechnology to help us solve contemporary challenges especially in health, agriculture, industry and environment; Unlock the full potential of our economy to create wealth and jobs for our young people as well as shared prosperity for all using all facets of the bio-economy.”

The Bill also designates a national focal point, a competent authority and a registrar; establishes national biosafety committee and institutional biosafety committees; and calls for mechanisms to regulate research, development and general release of GMOs.

Farmers can access new improved crop varieties and animal breeds in four major ways: from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) outreach programme; through NARO’S partners such as Operation Wealth Creation program and Non-Governmental Organisations; demonstrations and farmer participatory adaptive research and through giving free seed to farmers. NARO is one of the most active GMO research facilities in Eastern Africa.

According to Dr. Yona Baguma, the NARO has 12 new products on the market ready for patenting, licensing, direct sale and commercialization.” Baguma is the deputy director general of NARO.

These include; new banana varieties, lowland sorghum varieties for food and brewery, high yielding and excellent brewing barley varieties, bio-fortified iron and zinc rich bean varieties, virus resistant cassava, coffee varieties and s faster growing strain of Nile Tilapia and anti-tick candidate vaccine.

Breeders’ and farmers’ rights protection in Uganda are provided for in the Plant Variety Protection Act, 2014 [pdf].

“We now have 66 production technologies generated and disseminated to uptake pathways, and 36 new crop varieties and prototypes generated last year,” Yona added while addressing the media, days after passing the Bill.

The National Biosafety Committee is now overseeing 20 confined field trials of GM crops of rice, maize, banana, cotton, soybean, banana, potato and sweet potato.

“Passage of the Bill will allow scientists to conduct testing of the biotech crops in various relevant agro-ecological zones that are closer to the farmers,” added Barbara Mugwanya, Coordinator at Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC). UBIC is an information hub that develops and disseminates information on modern biosciences research, for informed decision making about application and regulation.

“Development and distribution of GMO foods and seeds will be regulated by both the national and international laws and guidelines,” added Baguma.

Uganda ratified the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1993. The objectives of the CBD are conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

The country is also party to the CBD’s Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing[pdf]. The objective of this protocol is to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from utilization of genetic resources, appropriate transfer of relevant technology as well as appropriate funding, thereby contributing to the conservation of biological diversity.

Uganda passed the Biotechnology and the Biosafety Policy [pdf] in 2008. This after it had ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2002.

The Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety [pdf] offers a set of guidelines regarding the safe handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Protocol also requires signatory countries to develop a regulatory framework and the capacity (in terms of people, expertise and technology) to undertake risk assessments with regard to the development and use of GMOs.

The current Bill deals with the regulation of agricultural biotechnology and other sectors are not adequately catered for.

According to the Report Of The Parliament Committee On Science And Technology On The National Biotechnology And Biosafety Bill [pdf], “the committee will at an appropriate time, table a Motion to this House, seeking leave to introduce a Private Members Bill, which may cater for the other sectors”. The other sectors are; Medical biotechnology, Industrial biotechnology and Environmental biotechnology.

“At least 250 scientists in Uganda are actively involved in modern biotechnology research in agriculture, environment, industry, and human health sectors,” according to UBIC.

According to Andrew Kiggundu, “GM seed and varieties will be great opportunities for farmers to sustain and or increase agricultural production by saving losses due to pest disease, drought and the ever increasing cost of labour.” Kiggundu is a plant biotechnologist and breeder.

“Small scale farming will need to concentrate on high dollar value crops like coffee, cocoa, cotton, and vanilla to earn good money,” he added.

The government has also substantially invested in modern biotechnology research in the fields of human health, industry and environmental management. In 2003, the President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni opened the first National Biotechnology Center at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute.

“In the last 20 years, the Government of Uganda has committed more than UGX 20 billion, USD 6M, towards infrastructure and human capacity development, for agricultural biotechnology research,” according to information from UBIC.

Promotion not Regulation?

In an earlier open letter by a group of civil society organisations expressing concern on the bill said, “The Bill prioritizes promoting as opposed to regulating the GMOs. The Bill facilitates unfettered introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) on a massive scale without adequate safeguards for small farmers, their indigenous knowledge, nutrition and markets.”

Biotechnology is specifically included in the Poverty Eradication Action Plan as a component in the Program for the Modernization of Agriculture. Use of GMOs and adaptation-related technologies, including biotechnology, may help boost the country’s agriculture sector.

-Written by Hillary Muheebwa in Intellectual Propoerty Watch. See original article link here