Transporting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for export or import without the approval of a competent authority will become criminal in Uganda.
Violators risk a sh2.4m fi ne or a five-year jail term or both, according to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, which was passsed on Wednesday.
The controversial Bill has been on and off the shelves since 2012, leaving both politicians and scientists polarised.
The Bill, now awaiting the President’s signature to become law, aims at consolidating all regulatory framework that facilitates the safe development and application of biotechnology by establishing a competent authority, designating a national focal point, a national biosafety committee, institutional biosafety committees and also providing mechanisms to regulate research and the general release of GMOs.
The Bill provides that a person who transports GMOs for any purpose, without approval from authorities, commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a fi ne not exceeding sh2.4m or imprisonment not exceeding five years.
However, analysts say the section means that the Government must move to enhance mechanisms through which legislative recommendations can be implemented, to avert negative effects of biotechnology.
According to the Bill, biotechnology is a technique that uses living organisms or substances from living organisms to have or modify a product, improve plants, animal breeds or micro-organisms for specific purposes. Biosafety means safe development, transfer, application and utilisation of biotechnology and its products.
Presenting the science and technology committee report that scrutinised the Bill, the chairperson, Kafeero Ssekitoleko (Nakifuma County MP) argued that whereas Uganda has no specific law regulating the development and use of modern biotechnology, it had, on the other hand, ratified a number of international treaties, such as the convention on biological diversity in 1993 and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of 2001.
“We need to trust and support our scientists because they are working for Uganda to own its patents and technology so that we are not beholden to foreigners,” Sekitoleko said.
The Bill also points at the fact that GMOs have been used in Uganda for many years by several industries to process wine and beer, cheese and yoghurt, bread and for the extraction of cobalt, all of which necessitate putting in place a regulatory framework.
The Bill designates the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNSCT) as the competent authority for biotechnology and biosafety that will approve the development, testing and use of GMOs.
Other regulatory bodies put in place include, the Ministry for Water and Environment, which shall be the national focal point for the purposes of the Cartagena Protocol, the registrar of biotechnology and biosafety and institutional biosafety committees.
On the National Drug Authority and Policy Act as a statutory instrument to regulate the use and development Ssekitoleko’s report says: “Aware of the fact that Parliament cannot legislate in anticipation, if the Government makes assurance that such law establishing the Act is in the pipeline, it should be approved because of the negative effects attached.”
The Ssekitoleko committee recommended that the Bill should also provide for identifi cation of GMOs for any person manufacturing and importing GMOs.
Where the future of agriculture fi nds itself engrossed in a heated debate over GMO crops globally, the proponents of the Bill note that GMOs have the potential to boost food, fuel and fibre production, which will accelerate economic growth and foreign exchange earnings, like in South Africa and Burkina Faso.
However, the opponents of the Bill argue that because the technology is new and most of the research has been carried out in developed countries, there are variant vested interests, which confuse the average person and the phobia about illintentions of the foreign powers.
Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) representative Gen. Pecos Kutesa warned that the Bill is a threat not only in Uganda, but the rest of Africa, arguing that the one who creates seeds can create artifi cial seeds.
Imploring the House to halt the Bill until their colleagues in the Opposition return, Thomas Tayebwa (Ruhindi North) had called the Bill unnecessary, and that it was being sponsored by foreign agencies.
“The European Union whose market we are targeting is totally against the production of genetically modifi ed products in favour of organic products. The GMO industry, which we are trying to invest in, is going down and Ugandans are going to lose out.”
Scientists weigh in
Dr Barbara Zawedde Mugwanga, the co-ordinator of the Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (NARO information hub) said the passing of the Bill means that as a country, we can regulate what is coming in.
We can now also choose what we want to use in modern biotechnology in agriculture, medicine, environment management and medicine.
Dr. Godfrey Asea, the director of National Crops Resources Research Institute, Namulonge in Wakiso district congratulated Parliament for passing the Bill, saying: “We now have a framework to conduct environment release, and research outside the institutes.” Erotus Nsubuga, the chairperson of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, called the law a great achievement that will help scientists work within the country.