Over the past couple of weeks, media has reported that parliament was considering passing the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill (2012) commonly known as the GMO Bill without debate or public consultations.
This follows President Yoweri Museveni’s refusal to assent to the bill for the second time early this year because of the inadequacies he detected in the bill.
If passed, the bill shall automatically become a law but will have deep political, social and economic implications on the country.
The advent of genetic engineering and the concomitant transference of gene sequences from one unrelated species to the other informed by technological advancements, is a few decades old and plunged biotechnology into controversy as society began to question its safety, appropriateness and morality.
In 1992, the international community recognised the need to regulate this new form of biotechnology, termed genetic engineering or genetic modification and as a result, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was negotiated, adopted in 2000 and ratified by the Ugandan Government in November 2001.
The core aim of the protocol was to minimise potential hazards associated with GMOs and ensure protection to individuals, the community and the environment from possible adverse effects of modern biotechnology.
Concerns over health, environmental safety and impact on farmers rights and the entire food system arising from the release of GMOs are justified, because it is difficult to determine their long-term impacts, which could be very grave
Sadly, however, the bill drifted away from the core intention of the Cartagena Protocolof regulating Modified Organisms (MOs) to merely promoting GMOs and is littered with weakly crafted clauses to create an open regulatory regime to GMOs.
The objective of the Bill stated as ‘topromote and facilitate biotechnology research, development’ instead of ‘regulating’ summarises the spirit and the narrow appreciation of the genesis and intention of the law.
The objective of the bill is outrageously silent on importation, exportation, transit and biosafety issues all of which are critical components of the Cartagena Protocol and the interests of citizens who seek to be protected from the exploitation and adverse effects that could be realised in the be long-term.
A detailed clause by clause analysis of the bill reveals even more shocking inadequacies in the bill that it cannot guarantee protection of Ugandans and the country at large.
1. Titling of the bill- “The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012” yet the content of the bill is by and large narrowly limited to GMOs is itself inaccurate, misleadingand is a deliberate attempt to blur the lines between controversial and uncontroversial technologies in order to win public acceptance of GM.
Does this mean the promoters of GMOs don’t have confidence in the public accepting their technologies? This was one of the major issues highlighted by the president in his reservations to accent to the bill.
2. The bill weakly addresses liability and redress mechanisms and does not attach liability to a developer of the GMO or GM related product(s). Instead, Clause 40 (VIII), protects the scientist from any liability. It shockingly states ‘A member of the Council or staff of the Competent Authority or a person authorized by the Competent Authority shall not be personally liable for any act or omission done bona fide in the execution of the functions, power of duties of the Competent Authority.’
How can the public trust scientists and the would-be regulators -the council who have been drumming up for GMOs yet on the other hand they don’t want to be held liable for any mischief that could arise of their hyped technology?
3. The law provides for laughable penalties of barely one hundred twenty currency points which translates to mere 2,400,000 UGX and there is no single penalty spelt for a Body Corporate.
It is glaring clear that the interest of biotechnology corporations is to allow them engaged in GM research, trade in seed, agrochemicals and other biotechnology products in Uganda. Are weak penalties a deliberate move to give such corporations leverage to do whatever they wish with impunity? A similar offence in other members of the EAC such as in Kenya would attract a fine of more than two billion Uganda shillings.
4. As articulated by the President of Uganda in his reservation to accenting to the bill, the proposed law doesn’t provide for labelling for genetically modified Organisms or products labelled hence infringing on the right to informed decisionabout whether to consume/ purchase GM products or not.
This makes traceability, a key feature of a biosafety in line with article 18 of the Cartagena Protocol challenging and infringes on the right to self-determination or choice over food and is a denial of fundamental rights of autonomy as guaranteed by Article 24, Section 1 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
Labelling GMOs enables the public to trace any adverse effects and ensure that the citizens can hold accountable any scientist or company whose products may have caused harm/damage to both humanity and the environment.
Are our scientists sceptical of something and wouldn’t want a system that makes traceability an option? Why should the law deny any Ugandan a choice to or not to eat GMOs?
5. While risk assessment is a core requirement under Article 15(2) of the Cartagena protocol, the bill weakly addresses Risk Assessment and Management in the handling, transportation, unintentional release of GMOs.
The proposed law provides thatthe applicant shall himself or herself to provide a risk assessment report associated with the GMOs for approval by the competent authority. This cannot be left at the luxury of the corporates and individuals intending to engage in GMO business but should rather be undertaken by an independent body and must be mandatory to include field trials, general release, exportation, importation and placing on the market of a GM or GM product.
6. The bill under Clause 25 (a) and (b) on expedited review of applications gives the competent authority vague and sweeping powers to approve release of GMOs into Uganda in case of emergencies without going through mandatory elaborate testingif such products have been developed and used in ‘related environments’. Analysis of food ecosystems indicates that related systems is a vague concept and is subject to being abused. Which system would one consider related to Uganda even when within one country, Uganda, the ecological conditions are as diverse as the cultures?
7. The Bill has hitherto, been exclusively in the hands of institutions and individuals who are sympathetic to GMOs, yet the bill doesn’t provide for mechanisms to manage conflict of interest.
For example, there is no doubt that the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNSCT) and NARO which are ardent promoters of GMOs have been at the fore front of the bill and are the intended beneficiaries of the same law. For instance, the bill proposes Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNSCT) as the competent authority to approve or disapprove of any GMO related activity. How can the same institution be a promoter, regulator and adjudicator in its own case?
As the pressure for passing the bill builds especially from the corporates and the promoters of the technology, our legislators should heed to the advice of the president and desist from rushing to appease the foreign interests that seek to exploit unsuspecting Ugandans.
We must remember that over 73% of Ugandans directly or indirectly derive a livelihood from agriculture and subjecting them to the control of corporates will increase their vulnerability.
Ugandans need to remember that the fate of farmers was sealed in a related law – the plant Variety Protection (PVP) act (2014), that defines a breeder to include a funder of a breeding program and section 13 provided for exclusive protection rights of breeders including the right to license other persons to produce, reproductive material of plant varieties developed by such breeders.
In this case, Monsanto and other funders of Uganda’s breeding programs including genetically modified seeds such as Monsanto would have an open cheque to controlling seed the foundation of seed security and indeed the lives of Ugandans.
Uganda’s agricultural biotechnology programme is the largest in Africa, buoyed by over US $40 million investment from the biotechnology giants including Monsanto the major technology donor for much of the GM materials used by NARO scientists
The GMO bill will only cement the interests of these corporations and their hegemony to control Ugandans and take advantage of our heritage hence the need to trade with caution.
Analysis of the bill demonstrates that the bill requires ‘major surgery’ if it is to serve the purpose as 57% of the provisions in the bill would adversely disadvantage Ugandans and should either be deleted or completely overhauled; 27% need to be amended and only , 16% are fit for the purpose.
The Bill should, therefore, be withdrawn and rewritten to reflect the interests and aspirations of Ugandans guided by precautionary and Strict liability principles to demonstrate our commitment to the provisions of the Cartagena Protocal
Mr Kawooya is the Manager People’s Action for Democratic Governance at ActionAid Uganda