By Brian Atuheire Batenda
On 1st October 2019, the Speaker of Parliament rejected the Mr. Museveni’s request to have the bill scrutinized again to harmonize with the concerns raised by the President but which also had earlier been raised by a cross section of Ugandans. Accordingly, Parliament is destined to vote on the bill in its current form and if two-thirds majority vote in favour of the bill, it will automatically turn into law without the President’s assent. The concern of many Ugandans is that if this happens, we shall get a law that lacks concrete safe guards against the disastrous effects of GMOs on the people of Uganda. This will affect our food security and food sovereignty which is a big concern to the President and citizens.
For those who might not understand what GMOs mean; GMO is an organism whose genetic characteristics have been altered, with some being knocked off, by the introduction of foreign genes into it. Those foreign genes can modify the behaviour of that organism from its original behaviour. Many people confuse GMOs for hybrid, which is not correct. Hybrid is transferring some observed characteristics from one organism to another. The characteristics are additional to the other organism through this scientific process which is much safer.
The bill is bad because for it seeks to smuggle GMOs into the country without safeguards and the proponents are using the threat of hunger to convince the country that GMOs are the magic bullet for solving all the country’s agricultural challenges which, accordingly is a lie. It is a lie because the main challenges we face is a rain fed agriculture that can be averted by providing irrigation methods from the vast fresh water resources that our country has that those who want to introduce the GMOs have never seen in the country.
Being Pan-African I would want to tell the world that African children have already suffered the consequences of introduction of GMOs on the continent. Our brothers and sisters from Africa’s top cotton producing country; Burkina Faso introduced GMO cotton but later abandoned after Monsanto supplied cotton damaged the quality. The fibre length, one of the chief measures of quality, was reduced, causing Burkina Faso’s cotton to fetch lower prices on the world market.
As a friend of the environment let me take a case for micro-organisms, Environmental applications of microorganisms are wide and varied, ranging from bioremediation, bio pesticides, nitrogen fixation, plant growth promoter, to bio control of plant diseases, and other such agricultural practices.
The sensible application of recombinant DNA techniques has shown the potential for genetically improved microorganisms to be used as soil or seed inoculants. However, when introduced into the environment, they have shown in many countries unintended environmental consequences and may play more pronounced ecological roles than the wild types. Genetically modified microorganisms are able to reproduce and establish themselves as persistent populations and may have subtle and long-term effects on biological communities and natural ecosystems.
Results of DNA modification may not be limited only to the particular characteristics of the replaced gene. It is therefore important to ensure that when these organisms are not released into nature for they will harm environment and human health
Unknown to most Ugandans, NARO currently runs one of the most active GMO research facilities on the African continent. According to the South African based African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), Uganda has the largest number of GMO crops under testing by NARO. These include maize, bananas, cassava, potato, rice and sweet potatoes. There are no local mechanisms however to stop these from being tested and they have a potential to get out of the lab. What is very worrying is that they are being carried without laws that actually support them.
The more worrying idea are those that fund this research for they are military in nature than they are for agriculture for their biggest funder is The Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), part of the United States Department of Defence (DoD) which provides financial and technical assistance, transfer of defence materiel, training and services to allies, and promotes military-to-military contacts. This brings in the issues of sovereignty rather than fear just about food security our continent and country could actually be taken over using food. This is possible because of the following
The introduction of GMOs in agriculture will hinder farmers from saving seeds from harvest for replanting the following season. This is because the seeds are patented. Patenting ensures that the developers of the seed recoup their time and investment in developing these varieties. Traditionally, Ugandan farmers have shared and saved seed over generations. What will happen with the commercialisation of genetically modified seeds? It will be disaster for them, for indigenous seed varieties will be contaminated, eventually lost to GM/Seed companies. GMO seeds are sufficiently expensive compared to indigenous seeds and this will affect livelihood of small scale farmers the result will be food insecurity and we shall be doomed as a state in the world where sometimes embargoes are put on countries in such a case we would be helpless and the only way to survive would to be on our knees forever. So this takes away our independence that we must actually defend.
More to the above investing in GMO seed presents a significant financial risk for many small scale farmers especially with climate change, volatility of markets, and access to markets among others. Farmers will be forced to sell all or part of their harvests to cover input costs related to buying seeds perpetually and poverty will be more severe.
The National Biosafety Act that was passed is lacking with regard to biosafety. It is not about “Biosafety” as is known in scientific structures and processes, but mainly GMOs in agriculture. The bill does not take cognizance of the Precautionary Principle as enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol.
This principle basically means there should be an adequate level of protection in the use of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology/genetic engineering taking into account risks to human health.
Our law does not mention this principle anywhere. Abandoning this principle is intended to reduce the liability of multinational companies with regard to the incalculable harm caused to small scale farmers, the environment, and public health.
The Bill is also silent on compensation mechanisms for harm caused to the environment or costs of reinstatement, rehabilitation measures that have been incurred. The liability and redress section has been vaguely defined, possibly intended to protect multinational companies that will be promoting their technologies here.
I implore country men and women to insist that the strict liability principle should be inserted in our law so that whoever introduces GMOs shall be strictly liable for damage caused. Incorporating this principle operationalizes the precautionary principle, which is a key tenet of the Cartagena Protocol.
Director Policy And Research AIFE-Uganda.