Uganda's Biotechnology law: The implications on farmers and other stakeholders

Tuesday October 10 2017

A cassava breeder explains the process of pollinati

Scientific. A farmer checks on her improved cassava in her backyard. File photo 

By Lominda Afedraru

Mr Abdallah Drasiku is a farmer growing hybrid cassava varieties Nase19, Naro Cas1 and 2 on their customary land in Olali village, Ogoko County in Arua District.

The 80-acre land is used for mixed farming where he has apportioned it for growing maize, tobacco and a large percentage for growing hybrid cassava.  

He began growing cassava in 2012 where he planted TME14 on a portion of a 12 acre land but it succumbed to Cassava Brown Streak Virus (CBSV) and making him harvest nothing.

The following year,  he planted Naro Cas varieties on a 20 acre land and he supplied over 800 bags of cassava stalk to the National Agricultural Advisory Service (Naads).  Each bag costed Shs25, 000 – Shs27, 000 in the first season.

He obtained about 200 bags of milled cassava which he sold at Shs50,000 per bag.

In 2015, Mr Drasiku planted Nase 14 cassava variety on 16 acres of land and harvested 1,400 bags of cassava stalk which he sold to officials of Operation Wealth Creation programme at Shs Shs50, 000. He has so far uprooted and processed 150 bags of cassava flour from 6 acre land which he sold at Shs150, 000 each.


Mr Drasiku is a university graduate who has since embarked on farming as a business and is not thinking of looking for employment.

His target is to embrace key hybrid crops developed by Naro scientists including those using modern biotechnology.

To him, since he is able to reap from hybrid varieties of Cassava as well as Maize where he is growing Longe 5 varieties with challenges to succumb to pests, diseases and drought conditions, it would be of advantage for him to access varieties bred using modern biotechnology with resistance.

Against this background, he is optimistic that the Parliament of Uganda did a good job to pass the National Biosafety Act which will help in regulating use of application of Modern Biotechnology in breeding crops and accessing the same.

Uganda’s Parliament on October 4, 2017 passed the long-awaited National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill into law becoming the Biosafety Act of 2017.

This has ended years of governmental debate over whether farmers in Uganda will be able to access products bred using genetic engineering compared to embracing other conventional products.

Mr Drasiku in an interview said:  “The passing of this bill into law is an added advantage to farmers especially for GMO crops that are drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant such as Maize and cassava which are highly embraced by farmers in West Nile region,” he said. “The law has been overdue and I will be glad if scientists can develop the seed and avail the same to farmers in due course.”

Mr Drasiku said he is aware of applied science in breeding hybrid cassava varieties which farmers have planted and people have consumed it and this applies to GMO cassava and other GMO crops. To him, what is important to note is that farmers will have the option to choose whether to grow crops bred by scientists using modern biotechnology application, hybrid varieties of the traditional bred varieties.

Legislator's perspective

The Chairperson of the Committee of Science and Technology in Uganda’s Parliament Eng. Robert Kafeero Ssekitoleko said it is a pleasure for him that after struggling for five years since 2012, the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill has been enacted.

This means legislators of Uganda and all other stakeholders involved in debating the bill have reinvented motherland Uganda from dumping anything related to GMO material inform of imports into the country because there is now a regulation to check the same.

“Previously, people were free to bring in GMO material into the country on their own wish especially in form of processed food like cornflakes and a number of baby foods but now if one fails to follow the guidelines in the law such a person will face serious fines or live imprisonment. But the most important thing is that the law will give opportunities to our scientists to develop locally bred products using modern biotechnology that will compete in the world market,” he said.

To him, it is important for people to consume GMO products bred by local scientists where the research process is checked to ensure safety rather than consumers depending on what is imported.

Modern Biotechnology products under research

Scientists in the agricultural sector have been carrying out research work in a bid to come up with genetically modified products mainly those at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge, the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) Kawanda and Makerere College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

It ranges from East African High land banana against banana bacterial wilt, black sigatoka, nematodes and nutritional improvement of Vitamin A and iron banana, cassava research against Cassava Brown Streak Virus and Cassava Mosaic Virus.

Others include research work on Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) cotton for herbicide-tolerant cotton as well as the boll worm infection which was halted due to challenges of availability of seed, drought tolerant maize varieties and resistance against the ball worm, Irish potato against Bacterial blight wilt, Rice research for growth in soils with less nitrogen and salted soil and Soybean tests against leaf and stripe rust diseases in Roundup.

Mr Kafeero said  that the law to be ascended by the President will enable farmers to choose growing of Biotech crops and those bred using conventional mechanism.

It is a requirement in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity which is an international agreement on Biosafety of research and use of GMO products that all countries engaged in the same world over must have a law in place to regulate the technology.

It became into effect in 2003 and Uganda is signatory to the convention. The Biosafety Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.

The key amendments

There has been ongoing amendments made in the draft bill and the key ones according to Mr Kafeero include an Authority set up as a directorate under the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovations to handle approvals of research and release of products bred using modern Biotechnology which previously was handled by the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST).

The National Biosafety Act will comprise committee of experts of over 13 members with different expertise in the field of Biology, agronomy, legal fraternity and National Bureau of Standards. They will handle assessment of applications in research, its legal implication and standard issues in imports and exports.

There is also the council of ministers chaired by the Prime Minister to handle issues of control of food quality by International interest.


Scientists speak

The Director NaCRRI, Dr Geofrey Asea notes that the new law offers comprehensive framework for development, testing and environmental release of transgenic products.

“It will provide guidelines for us scientists in carrying out research using application of modern biotechnology. Previously the National Council Act enabled us to do research at Confined Field Trials (CFT’s). Now we shall be able to test these products in various geographical locations for better preference to farmers tackling issues of yield, test and general agronomy’” he explained.

To him the law has been long overdue because it can be used to stop abuse of science when developing transgenic products.

The Minister of Science, Technology and Innovations Dr Elioda Tumwesigye in a recent meeting organized by Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC) in Kampala noted that it is important for the country to embrace new advances in scientific innovations in order for the country to move forward in development.

“We need new ideas in the field of use of technologies and innovations to tackle challenges farmers are faced with in the agricultural sector such as climate change challenges. Biotechnology in general and modern biotechnology application is not only restricted to agriculture but it cuts across tackling challenges of environmental degradation and health challenges. It is the reason why scientists invented insulin for patients suffering from diabetes using transgenic approach,” he explained.

To him science started with God getting a rib from a man to create a woman. This science kept evolving leading to biotechnology use today. He notes that it is important for people to identify use of hybrids which are already in the market with GMO’s which are at research level but most importantly incorporating the what is available is and added advantage to the farmer.

About the passing of the law, the minister is optimistic that it is at the advantage of the famers and all stakeholders involved in the value chain of modern biotechnology usage because they will engaged in commercial agriculture rather than  for subsistence only.