Uganda’s leading partners in the development of crop improvement especially through genetic engineering have expressed alarm at proposals that seek to impose severe punishment against individual scientists or agencies whose genetically engineered products could contaminate non-gm crops.
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which currently acts a major link between multi-national biotechnology firms, philanthropists like Bill Gates Foundation and National Research institutions, has expressed serious concern that the law leaves most breeding scientists with whom they collaborate under fear of being thrown into jail.
In recent years, AATF has played a leading role in bringing together multi-national corporations such as Monsanto that donate the technology, donors and national research institutions to develop drought resistant as well as pest-resistant crops such as Maize, with the aim of increasing food security in Uganda and other African countries.
Senior scientists at plant breeding institutions in Uganda, several of which are using genetic engineering techniques to improve staple crops in an effort to reduce rural poverty and pesticide use, fear that the legislation would leave most of their staff vulnerable to being thrown into jail.
AATF points to President Yoweri Museveni’s 2017 letter in which he used stern language when he describes bacteria as dangerous in plant improvement techniques, as having influenced the legislators’ adoption of harsh punishments.
President Museveni wrote while rejecting an earlier version of the law on GMOs that: “effluent from the GMO material should never mix with our organic materials” and that the “use of poisons and dangerous bacteria as the inputs in genetic engineering must never be allowed.”
But AATF argue that the President might have been ill-advised because: “Virtually all laboratory genetic engineering over the last 30 years has used a plant pathogenic bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens to shuttle genes into the target plant cell.
It adds that: “The President’s stipulation calls this proven technique into question, and could also apply to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)”
AATF argues that if accepted, the proposed changes to the law: “Could result in shutting down several crop breeding programs intended to benefit the subsistence small-holder farmers who produce most of Uganda’s food. Many of the scientists involved, who now work in internationally-coordinated programs, might end up working in other countries instead.”
AATF notes that the provisions of the bill, currently on the desk of the President for signature, could prevent genetically improved crops from being used anywhere in the country, as neither farmers nor breeders would be able to prove that contamination would never take place in the field or the marketplace.
In November 2018, Parliament passed the harsh provisions of the amended Biosafety Act 2017 by renaming it the Genetic Engineering and Regulatory Act 2018.
Although President Museveni has openly expressed his support in using science and modern biotechnology in particular in addressing challenges of pests and drought in Uganda, his comments in the letter and conspicuous silence in the face of cries by scientists regarding the proposed law is seen as a dramatic reversal of his long-held stand.
Recently, Arthur Makara, the Commissioner for Science and Outreach and Communication in the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovations (STI) expressed worry about the status of the law five months after it was passed by five months ago.
AATF is not alone in warning of a potential exodus of donors and scientists if the stern measures are signed into law by the President.
Dr. Theresa Ssengooba, a veteran scientist and a member of the board of Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) warned that in countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania where provisions that held scientists ‘strictly liable’ for any errors that would arise, almost collapsed the research programmes of those countries as no donor or scientist wanted to work in those countries supporting GMO research.
“After they realised their mistake (on strict liability) and amended the laws, they have made significant progress. Now Ethiopia is on the verge of releasing BT cotton to farmers to spur its ambitious garments programme,” said Dr. Ssengooba.
Sunday Akille, the legal of expert of the African Biosafety Network of Experts (ABNE) – linked to the African Union, also argued that Uganda’s proposed law on Genetically Engineered Organisms, goes against its commitment towards the Agenda 2063, dubbed The Africa we Want. He argues that the overarching aim of the ambitious agenda is to use science and technology as the basis of social economic transformation.