A number of scientists have expressed shock and anger at the proposed restrictive provisions that were suggested for inclusion into the long-awaited law on Biotechnology with some labeling them a disaster and a huge setback for the country.
The angry reactions come in the wake of a new report that was recently tabled in Parliament by Eng. Kafeero Ssekitooleko, the Chairperson of the Science and Technology Committee of Uganda’s Parliament to address concerns raised by President Yoweri Museveni in a later he sent to Parliament to explain why he declined to assent to the Biosafety Act 2017.
Clet Wandui Masiga, the Director of Tropical Institute of Development Innovations (TRIDI), a science policy think tank, criticised recommendations that seek to imprison anyone including farmers and scientists for any intended and unintended adverse effects of a product of Genetic Engineering.
“If adopted, the law is going to stifle our efforts as scientists to advance our work for the benefit of Ugandans and the entire world. For example, on Penalties, they have removed the word ‘Deliberately’ to extend the scope of responsibility for any errors that may arise in the process of growing the crops.
“What this means is that anyone who is involved in Biotechnology is strictly liable and can face life imprisonment if anything goes wrong. But as you know, there is no technology anywhere in the world that has no adverse effects. For example, someone can claim that by introducing BT maize (a technology enhances the crop’s defense mechanism against destructive pests,) you have endangered biodiversity by reducing the number of insects in a plant.”
But if given the green light, the use of BT technology in maize would save Uganda billions of shillings as the crops would be able to withstand common pests like the Maize stem borer and the new Fall army worm.
“Under the proposed circumstances, we are better off without a law,” Masiga argues.
Although the common law presupposes that one cannot be held responsible for unintended harm, Masiga argues that in order to avoid legal fights, most scientists will opt to simply avoid the bother and the technology all together, something he stressed is a retrogressive step since many countries in Africa and elsewhere looked up to Uganda as a model country in the development of biotechnology.
Uganda had emerged as one of the most progressive countries in Africa by allowing scientists to invest their energies to develop solutions to problems affecting millions of her farmers using biotechnology. The seeming openness to science attracted significant support to NARO where more than 300 scientists were sponsored by donors as well as contributing to the development of high-tech infrastructure.
The apparent U-turn in president’s stance towards the support for GM, as illustrated in the proposed recommendations to the biotech law, constitute a major blow to any hopes of adopting the technology especially by smallholder farmers.
“Pests and the use of the hand hoe are the stuff that are keeping us rotating in poverty. Anyone who keeps my mother tethered to the hand hoe and suffering from the effects of drought and pests, is her enemy,” an angry Masiga argued.
As pointed out by Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel Laureate in the New Vision of April 18, the introduction of mandatory isolation zones as big as 100 metres for Cassava and Bananas, will make it almost impossible for smallholder farmers to benefit from the technology given the small nature of their plots.
On the extension of strict liability to corporate bodies and individuals, Masiga says that the MPs are imposing excessive burden to actors in the sector.
“By holding individuals and their organisations strictly liable, it means the government is introducing double punishment to people,” Makara aruges.
Masiga describes the introduction of strict liability as a backward step that has previously undermined research in many African countries such as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Nearly all these countries, he said, have removed the strict liability clauses in order to attract interest from scientists.
“Because of the liability clauses in their laws, donors and investors shunned those countries to the extent that students found it almost impossible to access sponsorships for Masters and PhD studies,” he noted.
“Ethiopia spent a lot of years and money training her own scientists in biotechnology. For us, we had made tremendous progress on this front by having hundreds of people sponsored. With these proposals, the international support we’ve been receiving is likely to vanish. That is the danger of having people who make decisions not based on scientific facts.”
Museveni Legacy at stake
President Museveni has on many instances projected himself as a supporter of science as the foundation for social economic transformation. However, Masiga argues that the committee’s adoption of his ‘unscientific’ recommendations will severely damage his reputation internationally.
“It will be very difficult for the president to defend himself when his recommendations are adopted,” Masiga adds: “These retrogressive proposals will have a very long lasting impact on the investments and donations to Uganda.”
Arthur Makara, the Executive Director of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (Scifode) on the other hand criticised the Committee for rubber-stamping the President’s ‘ill-advised’ recommendations.
“One of the biggest disappointments is the creation of a Genetic Engineering Council that reports directly to the president. This is totally uncalled for. I find it queer that a regulatory agency directly reports to the president. What kind of structure is this when we already have so many institutions including a Ministry for Science and Technology?” Makara wondered.
Makara also questioned the composition of a Board of the Council, supposedly with one scientist out of just five members, as a huge gamble.
“If his own advisors spend years without meeting him, how will a mere chairman of that council ever meet the president?”
“Actually the S&T committee appears to have reneged on its duty of advising the President that some of his concerns were already catered for,”
Makara has argued before that what most Ugandans consider as indigenous such as Matooke, Cassava, Potatoes, Maize, Beans, actually originated from elsewhere.
Millet, Sorghum and Coffee are some of the very few crops that are thought to have originated from the East African region.