By Barbara Ntambirweki
The Parliament of Uganda recently passed the National Biosafety Act 2017. The law is intended to provide a legal and regulatory framework for the safe development and application of “biotechnology”, not “Biosafety”, in the country.
The advancement of modern biotechnology has been popularised as a powerful tool in alleviating poverty and enhancing food security. Uganda is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol which mandates parties to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology.
Over the years, Uganda has been progressively promoting the adoption of genetically modified (GM) varieties. A number of confined field trials have been conducted: for example, genetically modified (GM) bananas are being tested for resistance to banana bacterial wilt, black sigatoka as well as biofortifying banana with micronutrients with iron and vitamin A.
Other crops include genetically modified (GM) cassava against cassava brown streak, genetically modified (GM) maize for tolerance in drought conditions and cotton against bollworm among, others. Proponents of biotechnology in agriculture argue that genetically modified (GM) crops can potentially improve yields and livelihoods, and transform the agriculture sector hence alleviating food shortages and facilitating economic development.
Uganda’s population is estimated to approach 40 million by 2020, with an estimated 70% below the age of 30. It is argued, therefore, that applying science, technology and innovation will solve problems of food shortages, unemployment and wealth for the growing population. Biotechnology has been presented as genetic quick fix that can solve Uganda’s food insecurity problems.
This poses a number of questions: 1) Can Biotechnology overcome problems of food access, food shortages to farmers in Uganda? 2) Can the National “Biosafety” Act regulate GMOs effectively? Answering these questions requires a focused debate on the potential benefits and risks of applying genetic engineering and genetic modification in Uganda’s agriculture sector.
For one, why was it not named National GMOs Act in line with its content? The potential benefits of genetic modification should not divert our attention from the real concerns about the risks of adopting this component of biotechnology. The introduction of GMOs in agriculture hinders farmers from saving seeds from harvest for replanting the following season.
This is because the seeds are patented. Patenting ensures that the developers of the seed recoup their time and investment in developing these varieties. Traditionally, Ugandan farmers have shared and saved seed over generations. What will happen with the commercialisation of genetically modified seeds? It will be disaster for them, for indigenous seed varieties will be contaminated, eventually lost to GM/Seed companies. GMO seeds are sufficiently expensive compared to indigenous seeds and this will affect livelihood of small scale farmers: the result will be food insecurity.
Investing in GMO seed presents a significant financial risk for many small scale farmers especially with climate change, volatility of markets, access to markets among others. Farmers will be forced to sell all or part of their harvests to cover input costs related to buying seeds – perpetually.
Secondly, the National Biosafety Act that was passed recently is still lacking with regard to biosafety. It is not about “Biosafety” as is known in scientific structures and processes, but mainly GMOs in agriculture. The bill does not take cognizance of the Precautionary Principle as enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol.
This principle basically means there should be an adequate level of protection in the use of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology/genetic engineering taking into account risks to human health.
Our law does not mention this principle anywhere. Abandoning this principle is intended to reduce the liability of multinational companies with regard to the incalculable harm caused to small scale farmers, the environment, and public health.
With regard to liability and redress mechanisms for the farmers the Act is inadequate: while the law provides for the issuance of a restoration order to a person responsible for an activity that causes damage by unintentional release of GMOs, it does not specifically address by whom liability will be borne whether jointly or severally and does not attach liability to developers of GMO or product.
The Bill is also silent on compensation mechanisms for harm caused to the environment or costs of reinstatement, rehabilitation measures that have been incurred. The liability and redress section has been vaguely defined, possibly intended to protect multinational companies that will be promoting their technologies here.
I implore the President to insist that the strict liability principle should be inserted in our law so that whoever introduces GMOs shall be strictly liable for damage caused. Incorporating this principle operationalizes the precautionary principle, which is a key tenet of the Cartagena Protocol.
In regulating GMOs, elaborate risk assessment management provisions should be in place for the approval of genetically modified crops. Risk Assessment is done to determine the impacts and risks posed by GMO to the environment, health and biological diversity. Our law does not contain a specific provision on the requirement for socioeconomic assessment.
The socioeconomic assessment would include the ethical and social impact of the process to local populations concerned, traditional market and export earnings, health, ethical and moral considerations, actual and economic value of traditional species likely to be affected by the introduction of genetically modified crops, among others.
While it has been promised that regulations will be developed to incorporate issues on socioeconomic risks: this is a critical issue that should be incorporated in the law and should not be relegated to the regulations!
The promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been touted as a solution to the food security challenge in Uganda. However, as pointed out it presents significant challenges to small scale farmers. It should be emphasised that genetically modified seeds are not a magic wand that will restore poverty, hunger with a regime of abundance.
Several African countries have experimented with GMOs with limited success for example Bt cotton in Burkina Faso where production results from farmers cultivating GM cotton were of a lower quality compared to conventional varieties. Cotton companies decided not to supply Bt cotton seeds which ended GM cotton production in the country.
Our Act is lacking in several respects and does not safeguard farmers who, at the end of the day, are the end-users of these technologies. The government should concentrate on supporting farmers’ revival of seed saving practices. Community gene banks should be established at local levels to safeguard our indigenous seeds. We need to deal with structural issues facing the agriculture sector before commercialisation of GMOs: for example, farmers should be equipped with irrigation equipment, tractors, access to markets, access to good quality indigenous seeds and fertilisers.
It is my considered opinion that Uganda should tread carefully on GMOs: we need a strong legal and institutional framework to protect Ugandans from the myriad sociopolitical, environmental, public health, biosecurity, and socioeconomic hazards associated with GMOs.
Writer is a Research Fellow at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment