President Yoweri Museveni, who is waiting to sign the controversial National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill into law, has written to the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, expressing discontent with some of the suggested clauses in the bill.
The bill, which was enacted by lawmakers early October this year, has created a polarized atmosphere — with proponents arguing that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have the potential to boost food, fuel and fiber production, which will accelerate economic growth and foreign exchange earnings.
Opponents to the law argue that since the technology comes from developed countries, there are varied interests which may be veiled with ill intentions.
For instance, commenting on the proposal that GMOs will increase foreign exchange, Ruhindi North MP Thomas Tayebwa, as quoted in the New Vision, said: “The European Union whose market we are targeting is totally against the production of GMO products in favor of organic products. The GMO industry, which we are trying to invest in, is going down and Ugandans are going to lose out.”
Museveni weighs in
In his letter to Kadaga, which was also copied to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries and that of Science and Technology, President Museveni says that the name of the bill is unclear.
“I am writing in connection with the ‘Bin-Safety Law’ which, in fact, means “genetic engineering”. Why was it not so named clearly?” the letter opens.
Museveni is also dissatisfied with suggestions that genetic engineers will take all the credit through patent after modifying original crops and animals, without appreciating the efforts of people who have always bred the original species.
He states that the scheme could have inimical effects to the future of Uganda.
“There are ancient crops and livestock with unique genetic configuration. Examples would include millet, sorghum, beans, Ankole cattle, enkoromoijo cattle, Ugandan chicken, etc. These products have got specific genetic make up which our people have developed for mellenia through selection (kutorana for seeds and kubikira (selecting good bulls – enimi or empaya – he-goats).
Using the new science of genetic engineering, one may add an additional quality -drought resistance, quick maturing, disease resistant etc. This law, apparently, talks of giving monopoly of patent rights to this adder (omwongyerezi) and forgets about the communities that developed original material. This is wrong.
“Yes, we appreciate the contribution of the adder. However, we cannot forget the original preservers, developers and multipliers of the original materials. This must be clarified,” reads the letter in part.
Furthermore, Museveni noted that the idea of mixing genetically modified seeds is wrong, suggesting that the legislators should establish means of preventing cross pollination.
“There is, apparently, reference to a plan to have these genetically modified materials in the irrigated areas of Mobuku. Why have drought resistant seeds in irrigated areas? Is this a hoax?” the letter continues.
“We welcome genetically modified seeds. However, to be on the safe-side, the genetically modified seeds should never be randomly mixed with our indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem. There should, therefore, be no cross-pollination between the GMO seeds and our indigenous seeds,” it adds.
“The law, therefore, should clarify that green houses will be used to imprison the pollen of the GMO seeds or distances should be stipulated so that there is no mix-up.”
President Yoweri Museveni told Rebecca Kadaga that “use of poisons and dangerous bacteria as the inputs in genetic engineering must never be allowed.”
He wants the labeling to be clear and failure to “label the GMO products clearly should attract severe punishments.”
Regarding the recommendation by MPs that the home of genetic engineering should be the Ministry of Science and Technology, Museveni disagreed, saying that the decision is an administrative reserve of the President.
In the letter, Museveni directed the “Minister of Agriculture to work out, may be with NARO, a plan for Noah’s Ark where all our unique indigenous material for plant and animals) will be kept, uncontaminated with any GMO, for future use if there is any crisis with modernisation efforts.”
What was said at the Passing the Law
According to statement that was issued by Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation — “The Act is expected to facilitate the safe development and application of modern biotechnology.”
The government defined biotechnology as any technique that uses living organisms or substances from living organisms to make or modify a product, improve plant, animal breeds or micro-organisms for specific purposes.
Biosafety on the other hand was described as the safe development, transfer, application and utilization of biotechnology and its products.
The law, the minister said, will provide for safe development and use of biotechnology in Uganda in order to exploit and promote the use of biotechnology and science in modernizing agriculture, environmental protection, enhancing public health and industrialization.
“The Act will make it possible for Uganda to derive maximum benefit from the potential that modern biotechnology has to offer, while minimizing the risks to the environment and to human health. The Act provides mechanisms to regulate research, development and general release of genetically modified organisms and for related matters,” said Tumwesigye.
Besides protecting Uganda’s borders from unauthorized entry of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), the law would also protect people from consuming unsafe biotechnology products.
It would also 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; 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.
Other purposes of the law are “to 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, and 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.”