Monday, October 2, 2017

Uganda's Biotech Bill Could Become Law Tomorrow?

By Esther Nakkazi

The Uganda biotechnology and biosafety bill is due to be debated in parliament for the nth time tomorrow, Tuesday (3rd, October, 2017).

If it is passed it will send a strong signal to the rest of world if not biotech experts have vowed not to mourn over it but to re-strategise, clean it up and table it before parliament again.

The man in charge is Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, the minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), a qualified medical doctor who has continuously confessed to not knowing much about agricultural biotech.

Last week, Dr. Tumwesigye was in parliament and while the the bill was on the order paper he deferred to use the opportunity begging to first hear from biotech experts who would be in Uganda attending a three-day (27th-29th September) high-level conference on application of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in harnessing Africa’s agricultural transformation.

Tumwesigye himself anxious for the bill to pass was seeking advise on among other things; GMO labelling, strict liability and the expedited review clause, which he has been advised to delete and have stagnated the bill at Parliament.

Experts attending the conference praised Uganda for its progress in conducting field trials but cautioned about it delaying the bill further.

At the conference,  Dr. Tumwesigye reached out to biotech experts for insights into winning over the reluctant Uganda parliamentarians. “For me I am just a medical doctor. I want to understand, if there are now more modern technologies is it still relevant for us to pass this bill,” inquired Dr. Tumwesigye who is also the first minister of the newly created ministry of STI. He was reacting to the statements below.

Answers from the biotech experts were direct and straight. 

“In Africa we like debating as opportunities pass by us. The world has now moved from biotechnology to gene editing. Africans can be leaders and not followers,” said Margaret Karembu, the director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications Africa regional office (ISAAA AfriCenter).

“We need to move with some speed so that new emerging technologies do not move ahead of us,” said Abed K. Mathagu the program officer-regulatory affairs at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).

To which Dr. Tumwesigye wondered if it was still necessary for Uganda to adopt the biotech bill and not leap frog like Africa did with mobile telephony. “Cant we skip the biotech law and move on to gene editing if the technology is now archaic?”

"Both of these technologies (biotech and gene editing) are necessary and needed. We should not exclude one or another. They both serve different purposes. Before we can have food security people need to be secure about the food they eat," said Kevin M. Folta a professor and chairman of the HorticulturalSciences department at the University of Florida

For now, the Uganda biotech bill drafted in 2012 already has support from the highest office, the Uganda president, Yoweri Museveni, but has failed to get enough support from Parliamentarians for it to be passed.

“I have repeatedly said that there is nothing wrong with this technology. However, there are lots of controversies due to misinformation, which unfortunately seems to have been bought by some legislators,” said Yoweri Museveni.

“My government created the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MoSTI) in June 2016 to provide a basis for enhancing sector coherence and coordination,” said Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni in a speech read for him by Vincent Ssempijja the Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

Museveni said the priority for the STI ministry is to spearhead the retabling and consideration by Parliament of the bill, which ‘must be adopted for Ugandan farmers to access biotechnology products to increase their production’.

Uganda developed and adopted the biotechnology and biosafety bill 2012, which the Ministry of STI is working towards its enactment into law.

“Uganda should learn from other countries and pass this law now. And it should be done in a way that you do not have to go back to parliamentarians for amendments. The warning is that do not repeat the mistakes of other countries,” said Bongani Maseko, general manager, AfricaBio. 

“If it is passed we are supposed to celebrate. Ultimately, it will send a strong signal to other African countries. But if it does not go through we shall re-strategise but we shall not be mourning,” said Dr. John Komen, Assistant Director and Africa Coordinator, Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS)

Dr. Komen and other biotech experts attending the conference said Uganda’s bigger challenge is actually not just passing the bill but how to operationalise it.

Currently, in sub-Saharan Africa the following countries test GM crops: Burkina Faso, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa. But only two are currently growing them: Sudan and South Africa.


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