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Parliamentary committee report dares smallholder farmers to try GMO

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Added 12th April 2018 12:23 PM

Once the Government, through its relevant legal agencies release GMOs to farmers, no farmer should be criminalised for using them

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Once the Government, through its relevant legal agencies release GMOs to farmers, no farmer should be criminalised for using them


By Isaac Ongu

On Tuesday, in the plenary session, the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology presented its report on President Yoweri Museveni’s concerns on the GMO Bill that the House had passed in October last year.

The Deputy Speaker read the President’s concerns to the House and tasked the committee on science and technology to handle the raised issues and report back to plenary. The report is a compilation of proposals, most of which, a submission from Cabinet through the line minister, and of other Government Agencies that were referenced in the letter.

The committee report shows attempts to respond to every issue that the President raised in his letter. The report could, howe, put to test the President’s “pro” position on science, scientists, and his passion for eradicating household poverty through improved farming methods.

Other than the cosmetic changes such as changing the title of the Bill from National Biosafety Bill to Genetic Engineering and Biosaftey Bill; inventing the term GEO (Genetically Engineered Organism) to replace the widely known GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), the committee introduced other amendments, that when adopted, would tantamount to an indirect ban on GMOs in Uganda.

A minimum isolations distance of 200 metres that must separate genetically modified Maize from that which is not a GMO even when the purpose is not for seed production. This provision is against the smallholder farmers who do not have the luxury of a span of 200 metres. The provision technically keeps the majority of Ugandans who own small plots from growing GM crops. The isolation distance has been a requirement for seed companies not farmers.

Providing that farmers should be responsible for policing pollen grain from cross pollinating the neighbouring field will see many vulnerable farmers in jail for a crime of not stopping wind or bees from transferring pollen to a non GMO field.

This requirement should apply to GMOs that are still being developed by scientists.  If GMOs are dangerous as the spirit of this report seems to suggest, it should not be allowed to be released into the environment in the first place. But once the Government, through its relevant legal agencies release GMOs to farmers, no farmer should be criminalised for using it.

Making GMOs appear dangerous with any harm caused intended or otherwise penalized by life sentence. Criminality is always judged by the intention of the accused but the committee goes ahead to recommends criminality in regard to GMOs does not have to deliberate. This implies any mistake intended or not will receive maximum punishment. How many people would be serving a jail sentence because of the recent “fake” hepatitis B vaccine saga, given that it is also a GMO product?

Strict liability clause: Experiences from countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia show that strict liability clause is not different from as “a no go area” clause. Tanzania and Ethiopia had to repeal their strict liability clause for any progress to be realised.

Currently, Ethiopia is at the advanced stage of commercialisation GM cotton for their textile industry. No scientist or investor will be willing to put their future in jeopardy because of a law that criminalises scientific procedures and leaves room for no error.

The committee, despite acknowledging that Uganda already has Gene banks that are conserving indigenous crops and animals, they went on to recommend the establishment of what they call national indigenous gene bank. Are the existing gene banks not indigenous? It is understandable the committee wanted to appear to have addressed every concern of the President that included establishing a “Noah’s Ark” for indigenous varieties. However, they are also duty-bound to guide the house and the entire country on real issues.

The committee proposed the creation of a 5-member body, “Genetic Engineering and Biosafety Council” appointed by the President in addition to the National Biosafety Committee that exists in the passed Bill. This is contrary to the current government policy that is pushing for merging of existing authorities to avoid wasteful duplicities and bureaucratic redundancies.  It is the President who appoints ministers and creating more institutions under the presidency in the presence of an ill-funded science ministry is a poor job on the side of the committee.

Whether the committee was driven by GMO fear or need to appease the President, its recommendations could place the President in a tricky position of having indirectly stopped Ugandan farmers from accessing genetically modified crops. These crops could help address the challenges of Fall armyworms, banana bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak disease.

The writer in an agriculturist

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