By Barbara Ntambirweki Karugonjo
There has been ongoing public debate and controversy regarding the extent to which the National Biotechnology and Biosafety law provides an appropriate legal and regulatory framework to protect Ugandans from possible adverse effects of genetically modified organisms (GMO).
The advancement of modern biotechnology has been popularized as a powerful tool in alleviating poverty and enhancing food security.
However, it presents a wide range of socio economic concerns and biosafety risks that require an effective legal regime. Currently the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill before Parliament is set to be discussed in the house any time.
While the proposed bill is an important milestone in the quest for a functional and effective regulatory regime for biotechnology, it contains a number of contentious clauses that need to be amended before passed into law.
Like most technologies have their advantages and disadvantages, the benefits of emerging technologies can only be realised when laws are formulated to promote judicious use of these technologies by maximising its potential benefits while minimising adverse effects on human health and the environment.
The “Biosafety” aspects in the Bill are lacking which is a key tenet of any national biosafety regulatory system intended to assess the safety of GMOs to humans and environment. This is a fundamental disconnect between the title and content of the Bill.
Looking at the objective section, the Bill does not make any reference to precautionary approach in assessing safety in the use and transfer of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology. This is in total violation of the Cartagena Protocol to which Uganda is a signatory.
Abandoning this principle reduces liability of profit-oriented multinational companies like Monsanto that are promoting these technologies at the expense of small holder farmers.
Additionally, the bill does not have any provision on public participation mechanisms that involve citizens in decision making processes regarding the introduction of GMOs in the country.
The bill is also silent on Labelling of GMOs to enable the public exercise their right to choose products that are free from GMOs and to enable public hold companies/individuals responsible in the event of exposure to harm from GMOs.
On liability and redress mechanisms, the bill is largely inadequate and vaguely defined which gives protection to multinational companies that will be promoting their technologies. It ignores the rights of the ordinary farmers as the end users of these technologies.
Section 31 provides for issuance of a restoration order to any person responsible for any activity that causes damage by unintentional release of a GMO. However the clause is silent on who the liability is attached to whether jointly or severally or to a developer of a GMO. The bill is also silent on compensation mechanisms to the farmer, environment and or the costs of reinstatement, rehabilitation measures that may be incurred. A strict liability regime should be adopted indicating that whoever introduces a GMO shall be strictly liable for any damage caused.
From the foregoing analysis, the National Biotechnology and Biosafety bill in its current form establishes an administrative permitting system for the introduction of GMOs in the country without any safe guards to human health and the environment.
The bill contemptuously disregards biosafety in most of the provisions and fails to adhere to the key tenets of the Cartagena Protocol which establishes minimum standards on biosafety. With the porous borders in the region it is likely GMOs could easily travel unregulated therefore it is critical to have a biosafety law that will regulate trade and informal movements of agricultural products which go beyond country borders.
Given the uncertainties regarding GMOs, significant public involvement in biosafety legislation process is an essential strategy in building public confidence and awareness in the legal and regulatory process.
Members of Parliament have a responsibility to safeguard the interests of Ugandans against the interests of profit-oriented multinational companies and must take appropriate steps to ensure safety in the use of these technologies.
As Ugandans, we must be careful not to be bystanders and risk being swamped with GMOs. We need a strong legal framework to regulate GMOs in the country!
The writer is researcher at Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE).
Address the biosafety concerns in the biotechnology bill