Since the National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill 2012 was tabled in Parliament early this month, there has been a great deal of commentary on, emotive discussion about, and activism against the proposed legislation.
Subsequently, there has been a lot of misguided resentment towards agricultural biotechnology and genetic modification of crops.
These debates symbolise a remarkable demonstration of an open and inclusive legislative process, and indeed, Ugandans need to know the facts about biotechnology and genetic modification of crops.
This is so that they can make the best decisions about supporting the Bill, for their own prosperity and that of their children, now and in the future.
The authors are from the Uganda Biosciences Information Centre, which is based at National Crop Resources Research Institute Namulonge.
To regulate and ensure safety
The National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill 2012 is a positive step for economic growth and transformation as it will ensure and promote safe deployment of biotechnology for national development.
The Bill will help to establish a regulatory framework to guide use of modern biotechnology in tandem with the National Biotechnology and Bio-safety Policy, which was approved by Cabinet in 2008.
It will also mark progress in satisfying the obligations of the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety, to which Uganda is a party.
In line with other agreements
The Cartagena Protocol is an international agreement that seeks to ensure “safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms, resulting from modern biotechnology, that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.”
Therefore, the Bill in contention should not be regarded as ill-intentioned because there are already Ugandan staple foods like cassava and matooke being developed for resistance to diseases and food security.
The law will, therefore, ensure safe application of such appropriate technologies, whether developed in Uganda or beyond, so as to protect the population.
In Africa and the world, many farmers, corporations and trade partners are using biotech products. In light of globalisation today, our borders are porous and so we need a law to guide access to and use of such products.
Address fears and anxieties
Furthermore, biotechnology is used in different and precise ways, based on relevant contexts. In such instances, genetic modification is done in response to a range of agricultural and/or crop chronic problems.
For instance, genetic modification is done to protect plants from pests, harmful fungi and bacteria, to generate disease-resistant crops and, in other aspects, to increase crop productivity.
An essential solution
In a country such as Uganda, where the population is increasing rapidly and yet the curve of agricultural production cannot be said to be as responsive, it is essential.
Genetic modification for enhanced productivity and disease-resistant varieties are vital biotechnology processes for agricultural transformation and ensuring food security.
The biotechnology and bio-safety Bill will therefore be relevant in ensuring that products of biotechnology processes are safe for human consumption.
No evidence to support claims
Also, public anxieties, as with causing allergies, infertility, nutritional deficiencies, and other malfunctions, are addressed.
On a positive note, there is no scientific evidence to-date to show that genetically modified foods cause allergies in humans.
While it is absolutely not possible to make general statements on the safety of all genetically modified (GM) foods, the overall balance of scientific information does not bear out this claim.
Advanced research and development, supported by this law, will therefore help to protect Ugandans before the improved varieties resulting from biotechnology can be made available to farmers or the public.
Putting it in our context
We should desist from turning the discussion on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the Bill into an ideological debate; but rather focus on the safety and effectiveness of GMOs.
There is a real danger in letting the global ideological battle obscure our own priorities and aspirations.
Ugandans should not buy into the thinking that they are incapable of engaging with new technologies on their own terms and for their own good. The debate should take into account existing differences, for example, between Uganda and the Western world.
As anti-GMO journalist Nathanael Johnson admits, the GMO controversy in the West is mostly a proxy for an underlying ideological feud that uses the term “GMO” as a mere rhetorical construct. Fellow Ugandans, let us debate the relevance of the proposed law from the perspective of our own values, aspirations and realities.