OPINION | BIOTECHNOLOGY
By Arthur M. Makara
The letter from the President to the Speaker of Parliament on key issues that need to be addressed in the National Biosafety Bill before he can sign it into law was my biggest disappointment of the year. At first, when the letter showed up on the social media channels, I could not believe that it was genuine because looking at it closely, it had many shortfalls.
But being from the President and bearing his signature, and seeing no one from his office come out to dismiss it automatically authenticated it. The President did not come out to say anything contrary to what was circulating and what eventually appeared in the traditional media—the Monitor and New Vision of Friday 29th December 2017.
I must admit that I spent a larger part of that day on social media making efforts to explain to colleagues how the letter was highly likely to be unauthentic. My arguments were based on the fact that it looked unofficial as it was not on letterhead—but it looked a leaked file copy if at all it was authentic. I think up to now, no one has come out to confirm receipt of the letter from the President among the offices to which this letter was addressed or copied. That however doesn’t mean it was not genuine.
I will therefore not dwell much more on this as the President has the prerogative even to pass his communication in the popular press to respective offices. I will pay keen interest on the issues raised in the letter and make efforts to try and clarify. This clarification is not meant to answer on behalf of the Speaker or Parliament who have the direct responsibility to respond to the Presidents concerns on the bill. My opinion is meant to educate the public on the issues raised by the President and what they need to know based on scientific and real facts of science and the proposed law.
In the first place, the President has been on record several times supporting the work of scientists and asking MPs to expedite passage of the National Biosafety act. Whereas he has not found time to visit NARO’s research institute since he officially opened the National Agricultural Biotechnology Laboratory at Kawanda in 2003, I am persuaded to believe that he knows all the good work the scientists have done over the years, and the purpose for which they are doing it.
Moreover, the farmers across the Country have been reporting to him the challenges they are facing and he is on record tasking NARO leaders to explain the progress they are making to address these challenges.
Raising issues the way he did indicates that when they are clarified on to his satisfaction, he will sign the bill into law. This is contrary to the picture some of the newspaper headlines were giving—that the President had rejected the Biosafety Act. The President cannot reject the law that seeks to regulate the science that he believes in and to address pressing problems faced by farmers due to climate change effects, whereas those advising him otherwise are not proposing any viable alternative solutions.
As he clearly put it in his letter, he said he cannot accept the Logic of Pope Urban VIII who ex-communicated astronomer Galileo over the disagreement on whether the earth was round or flat. In a similar spirit, he said he welcomes genetic engineered seeds and technology, but required assurances of safeguards and safety of these crops.
The National Biosafety Bill seeks to operationalize the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy that was adopted by Cabinet in April 2008. It is on the basis of this policy that work has been progressing to handle various problems such as bacterial wilt, cassava brown streak disease, and the late blight of Irish potatoes among others using this advanced technique of plant breeding and crop improvement.
It is not only applied in crops but also in animals. Haven’t you heard that scientists at National Livestock Research Institute in Tororo have used this technique to develop an anti-tick vaccine that makes ticks to fall off immunized animals? Unless Government changes her policy position, this work has already consumed a lot of resources and it is due to reach the farmers.
What the law provides for are actually the safeguard of safety of these products, from research to field experiments to farmers’ fields, hence the name the National Biosafety Act. It is about the safety of outcomes of biotechnology hence the word Biosafety. It is this process that needs to be regulated and the National Biosafety bill is basically focused on that. Remember the initial name of the bill was Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, but later the Parliament removed the Biotechnology bit of it.
I am not certain why the President is not comfortable with the tittle. The purpose of the tittle is to provide for not only genetic engineering but even other modern biotechnologies which are already advancing. In fact, the genetic engineering approaches are becoming obsolete already, so, if the law is left in the current form, it will regulate other modern biotechnologies such as gene editing, where by scientists do not have to transfer genes but edit genes of a given crop to improve it. This is to avoid having to always come to Parliament every time there is slight advancement in biotechnology approaches.
The issue of conserving local varieties of crops and animals—avoiding giving monopoly to a few people that the President chose to refer to as “adders”: this view is not as correct as it is projected to be because all the crops that are being developed and researched on, are our crops of national importance. The National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) that is doing this research has been the same NARO that has been researching and releasing new varieties of crops and livestock to farmers since it was created in the early 1990’s. The challenges they are addressing are most felt in local varieties, and these crops at the risk of extinction if modern scientific tools are not deployed to save them.
In that sense, the issue of patents does not arise because NARO scientists never file for patents. In case they are to do it, it must be done in the name of NARO for on behalf of the people of Uganda. Our varieties are benefitting other countries and some of them are being taken to feed other countries. NARO does not seek for patents for crops they have developed and released to farmers because developing new varieties for Ugandan farmers is their primary mandate.
Where collaborations have been made with other partners in gene discovery, NARO must ensure that these negotiations result in royalty free availability of the final products to farmers. Otherwise, if donors are to be totally left out of the equation, Government needs to fully fund all research in Uganda. How come no one questions medical donor funding for health research? It is for such intricate matters that a law is needed to address them when this work is still at early research stages. The National Competent Authority proposed to be within the Ministry responsible for science will raise these questions and have them addressed.
The issue of the plan to have genetically modified materials planted in the irrigated areas of Mobuku in Kasese—this is not part of the bill the President was commenting on, but maybe he had heard or read about it in the Press. The fact is that NARO has been researching for many years and Kasese has been its experimental site for crops even before the advent of genetic engineering and it will continue to be even when genetic engineering has become obsolete. Thus, hearing about testing of genetically modified experiments in Kasese is perfectly normal. In case testing of drought tolerant varieties say for maize, the choice of Kasese for testing was due to the fact that Kasese is a drought prone district.
The availability of irrigation does not signify a hoax but rather a perfect testing ground during drought, where scientists can compare the plants availed some water, and those denied water and are able to confirm that those denied water are performing comparably well to those receiving water. You cannot do an experiment without a control experiment (placebo in clinical trials), thus availing water is to have that control part of the experiment.
Drought and climate change is one of the leading challenges the Country is facing. You can only research on this in a condition where there is drought, but also controlled availability of water, and no other place is as perfect for this as Mubuku, in Kasese during a dry season like is starting now.
The experiments are planted during drought, and in fact on 15th December 2017, drought tolerant maize experiment was planted at Mubuku. It is an opportunity for those that advise the President to visit this trial or experiment in January 2018 and learn more. If you ask yourself, is there anyone planting maize at this period of the year? Even in the rest of irrigated Mubuku, they are not planting maize now. When the best adapted varieties come out of these experiments, and with a guiding law in place, all parts of the Country will access these varieties. Already DroughtTego variety that is not genetic engineered, bred by NARO has been released to farmers. The experiments for this variety were conducted in Mubuku since 2009.
The issue of random mixing and possibility of genetically engineered crops crossing and mixing with non-genetically engineered ones is a good concern in theory. In practice, it is not a major concern, because the regulating entity is meant to oversee that a genetically engineered variety is not any different from its non-genetically engineered counterpart except for that specific improvement that has been added. This is a standard practice elsewhere in the world. This forms what we call the principle of substantial equivalence, and that is what is used in all countries that have utilized this technology. Otherwise countries such as South Africa would have been wiped out of the map due to utilization of this technology! From research stages, every step is monitored by the competent authority or the regulator set out in the law.
At any stage if there is there is regulatory doubt, such experiments are discontinued. This is provided for in the bill that was presented before Parliament. I have reason to believe that it was maintained after debating the bill. The penalties for contravening such provisions are also harsh and were clearly stipulated in Article 37 of the original bill. Based on the Hansard report, these were even made harsher by Parliament.
At the end of the day, if a product has passed through this system, it is expected not to cause any concern. Efforts to try and isolate a final product was discussed in Parliament but a larger section of MPs felt that it would deny their voters of improved, more robust varieties that are resilient to climate change just in case it is put in the law that their regions are the ones to be no-go areas for such materials. The MPs according to the Hansard report agreed that let them pass the law, and allow their voters choose for themselves. If such verities will address their problems, they will grow them, if they don’t they won’t adopt them. Farmers are wise. Denying them access could end up being a human rights issue and political issue.
Another related important point to note is that there are three categories of crops—and whether they have been improved on using conventional/traditional breeding or modern biotechnology, they continue to behave the way God created them. These are: vegetatively propagated crops—multiplied and planted through cuttings, vines or suckers such as bananas, cassava, yams, e.t.c. For such crops, their pollen crossing is a non-issue because in most cases it doesn’t exist or where it exists it is non-viable naturally. In some cases such as sweet potatoes and cassava, fruits can form but their seeds never germinate readily because that is not how the crop propagates itself.
The other category are the self-pollinated crops such as rice, soyabeans, beans, millet e.t.c, such crops are naturally self-contained. They fertilize themselves and by the time say the flower opens, fertilization has already taken place. So cross pollination doesn’t apply here or is meaningless. The last category are the open pollinated plants such as maize whereby they naturally outcross. For these ones, we have to trust that the rigorous work done by the Comment Authority and the National Biosafety Committee before they are released to farmers is good enough to guarantee safety.
Otherwise, maintaining separation distances or growing say maize in the greenhouses is not going to be realistic and sustainable. Scientists doing this work are Ugandans, and will be the first to eat these crops. They believe that their children and children of their children will be guaranteed a better future if they intervene to address challenges using all available tools at their disposal including genetic engineering that they confirm it is safe. It was painful on the part of scientists to learn that the President feels that they are producing poisonous crops or using poisonous means to do it.
The above issue is related to the one of coexistence of genetically engineered crops and conventional crops and organic crops. The models for this are well established. Genetic engineering is a scientific tool, the other two are farming practices; the organic industry has its guidelines on what their select farmers can apply and even can grow and what they can’t in terms of fertilizers.
Organic is a movement that abhors use of fertilizers and pesticides. But we all know that any serious farmer will need fertilisers and pesticides to fight off pests, otherwise you harvest nothing. How does the organic, no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticide agriculture fit within Government policy of modernization of agriculture, and doing farming as a business? This, I leave to policy makers and Government advisors.
Adoption of genetic engineering as a tool in the tool box of increasing farm incomes should never be dismissed if the Country is disarous of developing and transforming into a middle income country in a few years to come. It should never be a point of worry as lessons from countries such as South Africa which remains Africa’s leading producer of genetically engineered crops, and at the same time Africa’s leading exporter of vegetables, fruits and pulses to Europe. MPs visited this country and also visited some European countries that import from countries that are using this technology.
I am sure they were convinced that growing of GM crops does not threaten the European market of our few fresh exports as the public view may want to project. It is about cost benefit analysis of how much do we lose at the hands of the challenges addressed through science and what extent and how real is the threat at hand. Regarding the issue of Noah’s Ark, I was disappointed to realize that the Presidency is not aware about existence of both plant and animal genetic resources and data banks in Entebbe in order to properly advise the President this matter. These institutions might not be at their best because such are never prioritized in the national budget. These institutions have existed for many years way before the advent of modern biotechnology but they are not in good shape due to underfunding. These are institutions that ought to be further strengthened.
The issue of the home of implementation of the law is a sensitive one. If the President feels that the law should be under President’s office, this is a matter of discussion by Parliament when the bill is returned. However, one would again ask himself, why the Ministry of Science and Technology was created. I thought that the mandate to guide the country on policy matters of this nature would now rest with this Ministry.
The competent Authority, the National Biosafety Committee and other expert teams such as the inspectors provided for under this bill require a technical rather than political home to operate effectively. This is what one would expect unless the President plans to scrap this young Ministry sooner rather than later. However, this would still not be a point of concern because the bill refers to the Ministry responsible for science and technology which would always exist. These matters can therefore be transferred to another ministry of relevance with competency when the current Ministry responsible for science no longer exists.
As far as policy guidance is concerned, the bill proposed a high-level policy committee chaired by the Prime Minister. This was not in the original bill but I base this on the Parliamentary Hansard report. In order for the President to provide policy guidance, then that clause should be amended and such that he chairs the proposed high-level policy committee on biotechnology and biosafety that brings together all relevant Ministers together.
Finally the issue of labelling of genetically engineered materials was clearly provided for and even reinforced by the Parliament under Article 44 of the bill according to the Hansard. The Minister is also empowered by this law to prescribe details of such labels. This is because in reality what will be required to be labelled will vary from case to case and from time to time. For instance if my mother has to label her banana bunch derived from bacterial wilt resistant bananas or cassava brown streak resistant cassava how will she do it?
Or should we task companies that are doing cassava milling on large scale for starch processing to do that especially the after packing their products? For seed companies, it is easy and in their interest to do it. Will farmers require to label their fields? All these things are the details of which cannot be put in a law but rather provided for in the regulations provided, first the products passed safety tests and standards before it was made available to the farmers to grow it.
In a nutshell, a country that does not listen to and later on respect her scientists, doesn’t invest in science and technology and harness it to the benefit of her peoples, will always remain at the mercy of those that that don’t wish it well and can never realistically develop itself.
For God and My Country.
The writer is a biotechnology scientist and the executive director of Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development