Confusion in East Africa as Museveni ditches Biotech Bill

By Wahinya Henry
Tuesday, October 1st, 2019
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni visits a banana farm. Photo/COURTESY

The science of biotechnology debate in the East African region has kicked off in earnest after President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni declined to sign a proposed bill to regulate the industry in Uganda.

Scientists say Museveni’s decision not to append his signature to the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act 2018 for the second time has sent wrong signals in a region that has made major strides in biotechnology and genetic engineering on the benefits of the science.

Researchers have warmed their way into the hearts of authorities to convince them to allow commercialisation of pest resistant cotton — Bt Cotton — and a maize variety that is resistant to drought — Bt Maize.

GM imports banned

Tanzanian researcher, Prof Suleiman Juma, says countries that have adopted the technology and achieved strides towards commercialisation of Genetically Modified products can be influenced to re-think their decisions.

“The decision also casts doubts in the continent about benefits of the science in the minds of ordinary people,” said Juma.

But in a quick rejoinder, chief executive officer of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) in Kenya, Prof Dorington Ogoyi said the rejection was of no consequence to Kenya.

“The region boasts of a pool of highly qualified researchers in the region and modern research institutions,” he said. 

Adoption of biotech crops in Africa is gaining momentum as more countries leverage on experiences of other regions that have successfully embraced cultivation of biotech crops globally. 

Malawi, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, eSwatini (Swaziland), Sudan have all approved GM cotton. Nigeria recently approved commercialisation of biotech cotton and cowpea, joining South Africa and Ethiopia. 

Bt Cotton is several times more productive than normal cotton. Photo/Courtesy

Museveni’s rejection comes at a time when Kenyan researchers are at the point of making a breakthrough in convincing the government to allow commercialisation of Bt cotton and Bt maize.

Scientists have also been lobbying the State to lift a ban it imposed on importation of GM products.

“With the impressive success of Kenya’s Bt Cotton trials, we are hopeful Kenya will join the list of countries that have embraced technological innovations in their quest for food security,” says Prof Ogoyi.

Rejecting the genetic engineering regulatory Act, 2018 for the second time, Museveni cited the ‘wonder drug’   fiasco of 1950s that led to severe birth defects in children.

Thalidomide was licensed as a sedative for treatment of morning sickness in pregnant women, but resulted in births of physically disabled children. 

“There is need by stakeholders who include manufacturers, investors and producers of genetic engineering products to ensure safety. They must accept strict liability in case the products cause harm,’ Museveni said. 

Jimmy Kiberu, Corporate Engagement Lead – Africa at Bayer Crop Science Monsanto Kenya Limited,  manufacturers of the controversial Roundup Ready weed killer, was cautious in his comments about the rejection.

“It is unfortunate Uganda’s Genetic Engineering Regulatory Act (GERA) as it is known, has once again not been assented,” he said.

The Ugandan bill was to establish a    regulatory mechanism to provide a safe and responsible framework to guide scientific research on various crops towards attainment of sustainable food security – a fundamental development goal.

“Like any technology, appropriate regulatory laws based on science are essential for us to harness the power of the technology to do good,” said Kiberu.

Science beneficial 

He is hopeful the Ugandan government will soon appreciate the potential for the technology to improve agriculture and rural livelihoods.

“I welcome development of a workable law based on scientific evidence and sound legal logic in accordance with other countries already using and benefitting from the planting of GM technology,” he said. 

Museveni was supported by Ugandan women, who said the law did not respect the role of women in rural areas.

The women fear that if assented to, indigenous knowledge of harvesting, storage and reusing the seeds will be at loggerheads with conventional farming.

However, Kiberu dismissed the argument as incorrect, saying the Uganda law provides a framework for accessing new and innovative technological tools for farmers to boost productivity and ultimately assure food security and enhance household incomes. 

On  replanting of saved ‘seed’, where farmers use conventional hybrids, the situation is the same as with the GM varieties.

“Because hybrid seed is the first-generation offspring from two distinct parents, it is uniform and has a unique characteristic known as hybrid vigour. 

It’s possible to save the seed from a hybrid to replant, but it won’t be uniform, and it loses its hybrid vigour because the genes from the two original parents start to segregate in the seed, which is being saved and replanted,” says the Bayer official.