SUNDAY VISION -The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill being discussed before the parliamentary committee on science and technology lacks the necessary safeguards to protect interests of farmers and favours multinational companies.
Uganda has become a testing ground for various genetically modified (GM) crops developed by multinational seed companies which require farmers to buy new seed for every planting season.
This will eventually jeopardise the traditional practices of farmers sharing, saving and exchanging seed because multinational companies invest a lot of time and money developing these varieties, therefore must recoup their investment.
In 2003, Uganda ratified the Cartagena Protocol which mandates all parties to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology. Unfortunately, the proposed Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill is intended to facilitate massive introduction of genetically modified crops in the country while ignoring the potential risks and the need for a precautionary approach.
First, the objective section of the Bill does not make any reference to precautionary principle as enshrined under international obligations in the Cartagena Protocol.
Therefore, abandoning of the precautionary principle reduces liability of multinational companies who would take advantage of the situation and flood the local market with GMO products at the expense of local farmers.
The mere fact that the Bill does not make mention of the precautionary principle defeats the purpose of the proposed legislation to be cautious of emerging technologies.
Second, the Bill provides for expedited review of an application for research and general release of a GMO approved in another country with comparable ecosystems.
The impression created by this provision is that Uganda is clearly in a hurry to introduce GMOs without any safety procedures. It is important to note that no two ecosystems are similar and such provisions undermine the ethos of the Cartagena Protocol and places the farmers in severe jeopardy.
Third, the Bill does not provide for compensation to farmers who have been affected by an accidental release of a GMO. The Bill states that a restoration order may be issued where an activity of a person causes damage.
However, it is silent on who will bear the liability, whether jointly or severally, and does not attach liability to the developer of the GMO. Such clauses have been vaguely defined to protect multinational companies from liability and ignore the interests of the farmers. Under such a provision, a farmer would be hard pressed to prove that the person introducing the GMO was at fault and failed to follow safety measures.
This would make it very hard for farmers to expect compensation in such circumstances. The proposed Bill should introduce a strict liability approach to ensure that whoever introduces a GMO shall be automatically liable for damage caused. This would be one way of operationalising the precautionary principle.
The Bill is lacking in many other respects and silent on issues of public participation in decision making processes with regard to biotechnology development.
It is important to note that public participation is a necessity and not a matter of choice given the concerns surrounding biotechnology; significant public involvement is an essential strategy in building public confidence in legal and regulatory processes. The Bill is also silent about labelling of GMO products.
The Bill should have an explicit provision on labelling so that people can exercise their right to choose products free from GMOs.
The concerns surrounding biotechnology dictate that it is necessary to develop an elaborate regulatory regime to safeguard the interest of farmers. As a country, we cannot stand by and risk being swamped with GMOs from other parts of the world.
The writer is researcher with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE)