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GM law passed but controversy persists

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GM law passed but controversy persists

Biotechnology enthusiast Clet Masiga

The Parliament of Uganda this week passed the law to regulate the introduction and commercialisation of Genetically Engineered Products. However, new provisions that were added have opened new areas of controversy and some bits of confusion surrounding its application.

More than a year since President Yoweri Museveni declined to assent to the then Biosafety Act 2017, Parliament on Wednesday passed the same law under the Title Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act 2018,  but with a number of amendments which many scientists have termed as restrictive and dangerous for the development of scientific research and agriculture generally.

Peter Wamboga Mugirya, the Director of Communications and Partnerships at the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE) said that Clause 35 of the law on Strict liability is more restrictive than supportive of research as well as commercialisation of GM products.

“The strict liability provision holds the owner of a patent (in this case Gene) and all his associates, to  be guilty before trial. This is unconstitutional. It is a basic principle of our constitution that somebody is innocent until proven guilty,” said Wamboga.

Wamboga also observed that the law will likely discourage collaborations with international agencies that support agricultural research in the country.

“What we have to accept is that multi-national companies give assistance in exchange for some return. Why should we try to prevent them from enjoying in a mutually beneficial relationship?”

Wamboga’s views on strict liability were echoed by Arthur Makara, the newly appointed Commissioner for Science Technology Advancement and Outreach in the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovations.

Makara told The Sunrise that: “The strictly liability clause is a disincentive to innovation. How do you start to work (developing new GM technologies) when you know that at the end of the day you will be held personally liable without the accuser simply having to present evidence?”

He added: “For example, if someone goes to a restaurant and eats a GM potato and develops stomach upsets later but goes ahead to claim that his health condition was as a result of GM potato without having to prove it, it means that the law is unfair.”

But Wamboga argued that unlike other open strict liability laws that have been passed and scrapped in countries like Tanzania and Ethiopia, Uganda’s strict liability provision is targeting foreign private multi-national companies that hold patents.

“We need to study this provision deeper, but my view is that if a patent for any GM technology has expired, or if a technology is produced by public research entity and it’s not patented, then this strict liability clause does not apply.”

He cites some technologies such as BT maize which is resistant to maize stem borers and the Fall armyworm, as one of the patent free technologies that can be used.

Clet Wandui Masiga, the Director of Tropical Institute of Development Innovations (TRIDI), a science policy think tank, also cautiously welcomed the passing of the bill particularly on the provisions about strict liability. He said the provisions need to be studied further to clarify whether they apply to products made through Genetic Engineering.

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