By Mariam Mayet
We have in the past, commented on several drafts of Uganda‘s biosafety law and will not repeat the issues canvassed therein regarding the role and influence of the United States. We have been requested by civil society groups to comment on the National Biotechnology Safety Bill, 2008, approved by Uganda‘s Cabinet during April 2008.
Uganda has steadily been drawn into the GM debate over the past years. In June 2008, two short months after the cabinet approved the 2008 Bill, news broke that the first ever field trials involving GMOs in Uganda had failed dismally. The GMOs in question were GM bananas developed by the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in collaboration with the Katholic University of Leuven (KUL/Belguim) from genes isolated from rice, to increase resistance to black Sigatoka disease. The trials were supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Indeed, USAID has been extremely active in Uganda over the years, aggressively promoting the adoption of GM technology in that country. It has trained several Ugandan scientists, supplied state- of- the- art equipment and installed a level- two Biosafety Greenhouse at Kawanda.[i] USAID is also funding GM cotton trials, and although field trials have been approved, these have not yet commenced.[ii]
GM banana research, however, continues to be a priority for Uganda – the world’s second largest banana producer after India. Research regarding GM nutritionally enhanced bananas has attracted funding from the Gates Foundation,[iii] for the development and field testing of GM Cavendish bananas, utilising local cultivars modified to express either increased pro-vitamin A, vitamin E, or iron.
Uganda is also part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)[iv] a five-year research programme to develop GM drought tolerant maize, under the auspices of industry backed African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). WEMA is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed funding of $42 million[v] to the programme.
Money from USAID, the Monsanto Fund and the Gates Foundation is also paying for virus resistant greenhouse experiments involving GM cassava in Uganda.[vi]
Uganda, along with Kenya, are both poised to be testing grounds for various GMOs in the ensuing years. The Biosafety Bill will be an important tool to ensure that these activities take place. We offer our comments pro bono, to civil society in Uganda as a guide to pin pointing and highlighting the key problems with the Bill so that these may contribute to their further work in this regard.
We have recently commented on the Biosafety Bill of Kenya approved by the Kenyan Parliament and it is our respectful view that the Uganda Bill is, in many respects, similar to its Kenyan counterpart, as if it was drafted by the same person/s. It bears little or no resemblance to the African Union‘s Model Law on Biosafety.
The Biosafety Bill establishes a typical administrative permitting system for the regulation of GMOs in Uganda. It is also an enabling statute in respect of which, secondary legislation will have to be passed to bring the legislation into force. As it currently stands, it is not legally operational. Field trials and the importation of GM food aid into Uganda will continue to take place in a legal vacuum.
The Bill introduces strange and confusing unscientific concepts for research and development involving GMOs. This appears to have been done with the intention of creating the impression that open field trials are undertaken in confined conditions where no adverse impacts to human health and the environment may occur. The Bill designates the country’s National Council for Science and Technology as the competent authority in charge of GMOs in Uganda, including receiving GM applications and granting approvals. It has wide ranging powers set out in no less than 14 different provisions. Whilst written authorisations are required for GMO activities, and risk assessments for these activities must be conducted, any activity or GMO may be exempt from authorisation provisions or be subject to fast track procedures. Uganda is clearly in a hurry to introduce GMOs into its environment. Convoluted, cumbersome and contradictory provisions have been created in regard to cessation orders, access to information and confidential business information. The public will be hard pressed to understand the legal import of these provisions. Attempts have been made to ensure public participation, but these provisions may be of little comfort to Ugandan civil society if exemptions and fast track procedures are applicable for GMOs released into the environment or imported into Uganda for food, feed and processing. Duty of care provisions have been crafted as well as administrative measures for damage to the environment, restoration of the environment and so forth. However, these are not sufficient to deal with the complexities that underpin a comprehensive liability and redress regime. Labelling of GM foodstuff is another area requiring urgent and further work.
[i] Kiggundu, A. NARO. September 2007. GM Banana trial in Uganda. Biovision Newsletter. Volume 6 September 2007. http://www.biovisioneastafrica.com/publications/Vision_6.pdf (accessed 1 June 2009).
[ii] The New Vision Online. 4 March 2009. Uganda: Agricultural Ministry Accepts Bt Cotton Research Permit. http://allafrica.com/stories/200903050260.html (accessed 2 June 2009)
[iii] Grand Challenges in Global Health. Optimisation of Bioavailable Nutrients in Transgenic Bananas. http://www.grandchallenges.org/ImproveNutrition/Challenges/NutrientRichPlants/Pages/Bananas.aspx (accessed 2 June 2009)
[iv] African Agricultural Technology Foundation. (accessed 1 June 2009).
http://www.aatf-africa.org/aatf_projects.php?sublevelone=30&subcat=5 (accessed 1 June 2009).
[v] Abdallah, H. 2 March 2009. Bill Gates To Fund $47m Anti-Drought Gm Maize Study. The East African, Kenya. http://greenbio.checkbiotech.org/news/bill_gates_fund_47m_anti_drought_gm_maize_study (accessed 1 June 2009).
[vi] Monsanto Fund. Improving the Primary Food Sources in Sub-Saharan Africa. Global Contribution Report 2006 ? 2007. Page 17