President Yoweri Museveni Challenged Uganda’s GMO Bill

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Isaac OnguGUEST AUTHOR: Isaac Ongu | Uganda Correspondent | Cornell Alliance for Science | @onguisaac

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist with broad experience in agricultural communications and trainings. From interacting with smallholder farmers in rural areas of Uganda, Isaac became passionate about how the plight and challenges affecting smallholder farmers could be amplified for policy makers to take note. This propelled Isaac into writing, which he has pursued consistently for five years, focusing on science- and issues-based interventions toward addressing agricultural challenges among smallholder farmers in Africa.

This piece originally appeared on December 29, 2017 on the website of The Alliance for Science. It appears here with permission with an update by FAFDL editor Marc Brazeau.


What’s going on with Uganda’s GMO Bill?

In the early morning hours of Dec. 27, a scanned copy of a letter purportedly from Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s office started popping up on social media. The letter — addressed to Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga — challenged some aspects of the Biosafety Bill that lawmakers passed in October, but Museveni has yet to sign.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

The long-awaited bill establishes a regulatory structure for the research and release of genetically engineered organisms under Uganda’s Ministry of Science and Technology — though in his letter, which has since been confirmed as authentic, Museveni seeks to move that authority to his office, instead.

Uganda’s Daily Monitor reported on the leaked, then-unconfirmed document under the headline, “Museveni declines to sign GMO bill into law.” However, Museveni did not specifically reject the bill, and he clearly stated: “We welcome genetically modified seeds.”

Protections for indigenous genetic resources.

Still, the letter indicates that anti-GMO activists have the President’s ear, as it is prefaced with the phrase “I have heard that the following points may be inimical to our future” and raises many of the same issues that activists cited in their own opposition to the bill. These include protection of  “ancient crops and livestock with unique configurations”; clarifying patent rights; clear labeling of GMO materials and a severe punishments for those who fail to abide; and fears that the technology will be used to clone human beings unless the law specifies that the use of biotechology is limited to crops and livestock.

The letter also directs the Minister of Agriculture to create a gene bank, or what the President termed “a Noah’s Ark where all our unique indigenous material (for plant and animal) will be kept, uncontaminated by GMO, for future use if there is any crisis within the modernization efforts.”

Additionally, Museveni questioned whether the National Agricultural Research Organization had already released any genetically engineered variety t the public, and if so, how it has protected the indigenous varieties. He also asked why a drought tolerant maize trial was being held in Mobuku, an area with irrigation.

Banana with Panama disease
Fusarium wilt (Panama disease) is ravaging bananas, a major staple crop in Uganda. A GE wilt resistant banana is ready for commercialization, but is held up waiting for the new biosafety law.

Despite Museveni’s affirmation of the science, anti-GMO fears have crept back in.

The President further asserted that GMO seeds “should never be mixed randomly with our indigenous varieties” and the law “should clarify that green houses will be used to imprison the pollen of the GM seeds or distances should be stipulated so that there is no mix-up.” His letter also stated that “effluent from the GMO material should never mix with our organic materials” and the “use of poison and dangerous bacteria as the input in genetic engineering must never be allowed.”

What could happen?

The President concluded his letter by asking Parliament to consider the 11 points he raised and review both the title of the bill — he questioned why it wasn’t called a genetic engineering law — and seven clauses within the measure.

Article 91 of Uganda’s Constitution recognizes Parliament’s legislative power and outlines steps for how the President can send a bill to back to Parliament to have certain provisions revised before he will sign it.  However, a bill can become law without the President’s signature if the returned bill is approved by two-thirds of the members of Parliament. The Biosafety Bill did not have that level of support when it was passed by Parliament in October.

Parliament is set to reconvene in January, though no date has been set.

Passage remains likely

Editor’s addendum:
Jayson Merkley ( @maysonjerkley ), a Alliance for Science fellow wrote in the GMO Skepti-Forum discussion of this issue:

Folks in Uganda are telling me that this is a normal part of the process. The president’s concerns will likely be addressed and he’ll have an opportunity to sign a revised version. Nobody is panicking yet.

And Mark Lynas, reporting for the Alliance for Science that President Museveni has affirmed the urgent need for biotech in Uganda’s agricultural systems.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has given his strongest endorsement yet for the urgent need to use biotechnology in African agriculture, potentially breaking the nation’s years-long political stalemate over whether its struggling farmers will be permitted to use GMOs.

“On the subject of GMOs, let us all move as a block and all decisions should be based on sound science,” the president said. “This technology is working elsewhere and we should not be left behind, the way we missed out during the green revolution that brought food security to South East Asia.”

Referring to the long-stalled Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill, which has been blocked in the Ugandan parliament by aggressive lobbying from anti-GMO groups, Museveni was unambiguous in voicing his support: “This Bill must be adopted for Ugandan farmers to access biotechnology products to increase their production… We should not allow activists to continue confusing our legislators.”

An Op/Ed in a local paper affirms that Museveni is likely to sign the bill once his concerns about preserving, protecting and seeking compensation for Uganda’s genetic heritage and resources are addressed.

We came to learn about a month ago that President Museveni had referred the Biotechnology and Bio-safety Bill back to parliament for further debate.
He was reportedly concerned about some issues that according to him were not well clarified in the bill. His refusal to sign the bill at that time was welcomed by many anti-science activists and some MPs that are now preparing to ensure it is not passed this time.

The truth however is that the president’s strong support for science and innovation is well known.

… Through biotech research NARO has come up with some solutions to the crop diseases and harsh climatic conditions that are killing and reducing our main food crops like bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes, and Irish potatoes, maize, and rice. Our president is an accomplished farmer to whom none of the mentioned issues is new. It is very likely he will later sign the bill when the clauses he queried are streamlined.

– Marc Brazeau, editor

Ugandan President Museveni (left) shakes hands with ag scientist Clet Wandui Masiga. | Photo via Cornell Alliance for Science


Read more:

• What Uganda’s Seed Problems Tell Us About How to Develop Dynamic Markets
• Africa’s Smallholder Farmers Need Access to More Than Just Tractors
• Bringing Technological Innovation to Agroforestry in Uganda
• With the Familiar Cavendish Banana in Danger, Can Science Help it Survive?

 [Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. Or make a one time donation via PayPal. ]

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