Is Uganda ready for GMOs?

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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 the biofortifying banana with micronutrients with iron and vitamin A.

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 a 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.

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.

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