By Isaac Ongu
The President and his Cabinet embraced Biotechnology in 2008 through a National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy that they passed with the goal of, "contributing to poverty eradication, improved healthcare, food security, industrialisation and the protection of the environment through safe application of biotechnology."
The policy conclusively provides guidelines to 10 strategic areas: human resource capacity development; infrastructure development; research and development; public awareness and participation; industrial application and commercialisation; bioethics and biosafety; indigenous knowledge and practices; linkages and partnerships; biodiversity conservation and utilisation.
The magic number 10 strategic areas covered in the Policy document addresses concerns that sections of civil society organisations have been raising. These concerns were reflected in the President's leaked letter to the Speaker that proposed a Noah's Ark arrangement for "our indigenous varieties", among other things.
On infrastructure, there is no government agency that matches Agricultural research apparatus that is highly organised and equally distributed across the country. Anyone who wants to confirm this should travel to Buginyanya Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute seated right on top of one of the Mount Elgon ranges in Bulambuli district. Other than in spread, there are modern research facilities at National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) and National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL), where genetic engineering work takes place.
Infrastructure must go hand-in-hand with human resource. It is not by mistake that colleges and schools at Uganda's leading Makerere University reflect this paradigm shift: college of veterinary medicine, animal resource and cio-security (CoVAB); the school of food technology, nutrition and bio-engineering; department of agricultural & bio systems engineering; the school of bio-security, biotechnical and laboratory sciences. The Government should, therefore, wake up and harness the potential of biotechnology in its various shades by providing a suitable environment where scientists can work without feeling disenfranchised.
Taking care of indigenous knowledge and practices should be the sole responsibility of the Government to guide, but also strengthen property rights laws in the country. This will help protect the property rights of local communities, be it the unique sounds that come from their traditional instruments or unique procedures in developing traditional products. Putting that under the Biosafety law which is meant to regulate a specific discipline is a scapegoat and diversionary.
Another area addressed under the Biotechnology Policy is the issue of biodiversity that is always fronted by those whose concern is that genetically engineered crops will reduce on the biodiversity rather that increase it. Uganda has Plant Genetic Resource Centre and National Genetic Resource Centre and Data Bank meant to conserve crops and animals respectively.
The "GMO Ark" that the President wants built to conserve "our indigenous" varieties of crops and breeds of animals has been in place. What the President and his Cabinet should be asking is whether every indigenous crop or animal is included in that Ark and guide on whether Kabale's English potato, apple, recently introduced ‘Chinese millet', sunflower, vanilla, grapes, should be left out in the "GMO flood."
It is a fact biotechnology and biosafety is a big policy issue, nationally and globally. This is because of its great potential to bring transformation across various sectors that include agriculture, health, pharmaceuticals, industry, environment and biodiversity conservation.
It is clear the President returned the Biosafety Bill unsigned basing on issues which are addressed comprehensively in his Government's policy. He and his Cabinet should use the budget, one of the policy implementing instruments to: further research funding in Biotechnology; facilitate sensitisation of the public on biotechnology and register indigenous technologies and their uniqueness.
With army worms ravaging maize, cassava brown streak disease causing rot, banana bacterial wilt dwindling farmers' profits, it is insensitive of the President and his Cabinet to flip-flop on policy decisions and delay the Biosafety Bill enactment over issues which are clear in the policy and issues that line ministers can address through subsidiary regulations.
The writer is an agriculturist