The perceived delay by the President to assent to the law regulating genetic engineering is causing anxiety among some sections of the scientific community with some now doubting whether the president actually received the bill while others doubting the government’s commitment to implementing it’s own agenda especially on agricultural transformation.
Still, despite the dwindling hope that the government is ready to embrace science and evidence-based policies, there are voices, even actions of resilience among the scientific community to move forward towards the release of products of genetic improvement.
In November 2018, Parliament passed a revised bill that most scientists described as a bad law whose spirit, they say was to frustrate innovations and adoption of GMO technology and went counter to the original objectives of the legislation- which was to promote the safe development of genetically engineered crops. This was In response to the president’s view to have a system that would safeguard indigenous crop and animal species.
The constitution gives the president up to 30 days to assent to a bill to become law.
But ever since Parliament passed the amended instrument, there is fear that the bill might not have reached the president’s table or perhaps if it reached, it might have been smuggled away by the mafia to frustrate the realisation of fruits arising from years of development of GMOs.
“We have no evidence that the president actually received the bill,” said Arthur Makara, the Commissioner for science outreach and communication in the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovations (STI).
Efforts by The Sunrise to establish the status of the bill from the relevant bodies ie State House and Parliament hit a dead end. The President’s spokesperson Don Wanyama told this reporter that he was unaware of the status of the bill as he was in the field by the the time of the call. And the Director of Communication at Parliament Chris Obore’s phone was off by the time of the call.
Despite the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty, some prominent scientists are voicing readiness to move ahead with the bad law, in order to safeguard the many achievements Uganda has recorded in a rapidly evolving global economic and research environment.
Dr. Theresa Ssengooba, a member of the board of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) and one of the foremost breeders in the country, argues that there is consensus among Ugandan scientists that they should move ahead with the development of GMOs.
“We are determined to move forward with the research. We believe that people’s mindset will gradually change in favour after realising the benefits of the technology,” She added.
“Scientists think that we can continue with research and have products that will change the mindset of the people because whether you like it or not, GMOs will be good for this country.”
Ssengooba made the comments while speaking to a group of science journalists in Kampala this week. Her comments came after a presentation by Akille Sunday Igu, the Legal and Policy Programme Officer of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), a scientific body of Experts established the African Union Commission.
Akille, argued that Parliament introduced restrictive provisions of Strict Liability provisions against Patent holders of the technology as a deterrence for them to develop and propagate the technology despite evidence that its application heralds numerous benefits for millions of poor farmers and the Ugandan economy.
He argued however that the Strict Liability provisions go against the African Union vision 2063 dubbed as The Africa We Want that seeks to increase agricultural productivity using science.
“Provisions like these will be repulsive for developers of technology that would have helped to create jobs and raise the incomes of poor people,” said Akille.
The direction of Uganda’s regulatory environment is going against the wind of change across the continent that is aimed at removing the restrictive laws in order to encourage research.
Ethiopia, Tanzania, Eswatini, formally known as Swaziland have all relaxed their laws and are moving rapidly towards commercialisation of Genetically Modified crops.
The recent attacks by the Fall Army Worm that destroys maize as well as frequent droughts, and the need to revive the cotton industry in most of the those countries has triggered the mindset change.
As Dr. Ssengooba observed; “Countries that had introduced strict liability provisions, research comes to a dead end because no scientist wants to be held accountable for crimes that may be committed by others.”