Winners, losers of Genetic Engineering Regulatory law as the legislation continues to remain in abeyance

Tuesday October 20 2020
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By Charlotte Ninsiima
By Ismail Musa Ladu

Winners, losers of engineering law

Despite being passed into law, the implementation of Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act, is still dangling in the air, thanks to unnecessary encumbrances, defeating the very logic for which this piece of legislation is intended to cure, Daily Monitor Online has established.

The Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act seeks to provide legally accepted grounds (regulatory framework) under which safe development and application of biotechnology in the country can be facilitated. 

For starters, biotechnology is technology that utilises biological systems, living organisms or parts of this to develop or create different products.

To employ the use of science and biotechnology in ensuring food security, poverty alleviation, protection of crops from pests and increased yields, modernisation of agriculture, protection of the environment, enhancing public health and industrialisation, this law, that is yet to be assented to, and currently gathering dusts somewhere in the shelves, must make it back into the order paper and get treated with respect and urgency it deserves.  

Already biotechnology is being used in Uganda and it has been so for many years. Brewing and baking bread are examples of processes that fall within the concept of biotechnology (use of yeast which is living organism to produce the desired product.

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This technology is also used in production of cheese and yoghurt and extraction of cobalt among others. With the modern genetic engineering techniques to transfer useful characteristics like disease resistance or tolerance to drought, development of medicines, improving the environment is relatively new yet its use creates enormous opportunities for modernization of agriculture, protection of the environment, enhance public health and industrialization, hence the immediate need for the law to get done with by parliament and quickly assented to by the President.

So close

The Genetic Engineering Regulatory law, formerly referred to as the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill or loosely referred to as GMO law, has twice come close to being signed into law, only for an exaggerated matter, that has been part of the discussion, to re-emerge and turned into an issue.  

President Museveni who is in agreement with the law and wants what he describe as missing gaps in relation to how intellectual property rights and economic benefits will be shared with local communities clearly spelt out.

He also believes that the law does not clearly spell out isolation measures involved in genetic material research and production. He also thinks that it does not address penalties that apply to the perpetrators who failed to apply the measures in the law.

He was also of the view that the legislation although complete didn’t provide provisions to safeguard the soils from contaminants resulting from the use of the technology, let alone wanting more safeguard on local variety.

Once all that was taken care of, he needed to understand if there are unspecified after effects of genetic modifications on the animals and plants, and this according Assistant Commissioner, Biosafety and Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, David Musunga, largely explains why for the second time the President didn’t assent to the law.   

“It is true the law has stalled in Parliament although it has been put on order paper a few times. The only thing that is needed is to pass it by a two third majority. And as long as we don’t attain that, it will remain in the shelves,” Assistant Commissioner Musunga, said when interviewed for this article recently.  

Heavy toll

Meanwhile as the law which should essentially be enforceable by now continues to gather dust in parliament, key economic activities, among them agriculture is counting losses.     

“Something needs to be done, and done fast or else the consequences may be dire as we are already witnessing,” Dr Isaac Ongu, an agriculturalist, said when contacted.

Dr Ongu who is also the Executive Director, Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, sentiments emanate from the fact that the law would have come in handy right now when some GMO crops like cassava brown streak resistant cassava and late blight resistant potato have reached a point of biosafety approval for subsequent commercial release.

The challenge however is that without appropriate regulation that could have been informed by the pending law, the approving authority is unable to proceed. This is particularly disturbing considering the amount of time, resources and expertise that has been injected into this development, only to be frustrated by lack of a functional law.

He said: “Uganda has invested lots of money and human capital in development GMO crops for farmers, such effort could be utilized by neighbouring countries. Kenya and Nigeria have already taken bold step to release GMO crops.”

He continued: “Research partners are reluctant to co-fund GMOs in Uganda because subsistence farmers who need them most continue to suffer despite the presence of home grown solutions. Scientists are demoralised because of perceived lack of political will.”

This was further exemplified by Assistant Commissioner Musunga when he said government has invested a lot of money in infrastructure, technology, research and human capacity which is in a standstill as the remains in abeyance.

“Some of our very good scientists have left the country to do research in countries where the environment is more conducive. I don’t think this is something that we should be very proud about,” he said.

 Further, he noted that, it is important to understand that several activists have been pushing the agenda that is against the law, arguing that the legislation will promote GMOs without knowing that the law is supposed to regulate it (GMO).

As we speak now, he said, it is very likely that we have GMO products on the market from all over place including South Africa, US and Canada, and we cannot do anything about it even though they are of good quality or not because we don’t have a legal framework to facilitate that.

He however disclosed that this matter will be pending until the end of the political season when new term of office takes effect next year for Parliament.

Activists view

The Executive Director of Foods Right Alliance (FRA), Ms Agnes Kirabo is one of those activists who has stuck to her gun. She doesn’t believe the law will be the solution to the issues it seeks to address.

She said in an interview: “This law is not solving any problem. Like anywhere in the world there are hungry people why hasn’t this technology solved that problem?”

According to Jessie Luna, a Sociologist at Colorado state university, Burkiana Faso was the first African country where a GM crop was principally grown by smallholder farmers in 2008. The crop was an insect resistant variety, developed in partnership with the US based agribusiness company- Bayer Crop Science.

Eight years later, Burkina Faso abandoned GM cotton because it had shorter- fibre lint and ginning machines extracted proportionally less hint from harvested cotton bolls. This led to $76million in losses for cotton companies.  In addition to that, GM cotton yields were less than half of early projections and there were significant variations among farmers this caused many to lose money. 

Rallying call

Despite the aforementioned fears, which has been used time and again, there is a growing consensus that there all is not as bad as being peddled in some quarters, thanks to evolving technology.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a high-level science body of the United Nations mandated to offer evidence-based policy recommendations, recently issued a sobering report on the potential impacts of a 1.5°C degree rise in global temperatures over the next 11 to 33 years.

One of the main dangers will be its effects on agriculture and food production in the face of expected drought, reduced water supplies and increased pressure from plant pests and diseases.

“The question now is how we can continue to meet the steadily rising demand for food while simultaneously reducing the climate change impacts linked to agricultural practices and meeting international goals related to sustainable development and poverty eradication,” Dr Isaac Ongu rhetorically asked.

Dr Ongu couldn’t agree more with group of eminent UN experts (IPCC) who recommended the use of biotechnology, in the form of genetically engineered crops and livestock, as one approach that should be taken on board

If this happens, Dr Ongu, considering his broad experience in agricultural communications and trainings, believes Uganda could be in the enviable position of serving as a role model and leader in modern, research-based farming practices, including biotechnology, on the continent.

Sadly, he said: “… instead, our agricultural sector is mired in politics as other nations, like South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi and even Kenya, move forward.”

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