Uganda’s Biotech Bill Could be Passed by Parliament Tomorrow

By Esther Nakkazi

The Uganda biotechnology and biosafety bill is due to be debated in parliament for the ninth time tomorrow on Tuesday (3rd, October, 2017).

If it is passed it will send a strong signal to the rest of world. If not, biotech experts have vowed not to mourn over it but to re-strategise, clean it up and table it again.  The man in charge, Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) and a qualified medical doctor, has continuously confessed to not knowing much about agricultural biotech.

Last week, Dr. Tumwesigye was in parliament and while the the bill was on the order paper, he deferred it so as to get an opportunity to first hear from biotech experts.  At the just concluded three-day (27th-29th September) high-level conference on application of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in harnessing Africa’s agricultural transformation, he reached out to biotech experts for insights into winning over reluctant Uganda parliamentarians.

“For me I am just a medical doctor. I want to understand, if there are now more modern technologies, is still relevant for us to pass this bill,” asked Dr. Tumwesigye who is the first minister of a newly created ministry of STI. Anxious for the bill to pass, the minister was seeking advise on among other things; GMO labelling, strict liability and expedited review clause which he has been advised to delete, resulting in stagnation of the bill in Parliament. Experts attending the conference praised Uganda for its progress in conducting field trials but cautioned about it delaying the bill further.

“In Africa we like debating as opportunities pass by us. The world has now moved from biotechnology to gene editing. Africa can be leaders and not followers,” said Margaret Karembu, Director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications Africa regional office (ISAAA AfriCenter).

“We need to move with some speed so that new emerging technologies do not move ahead of us,” said Abed K. Mathagu the Program Officer-Regulatory Affairs at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).

Dr. Tumwesigye wondered if it was still necessary for Uganda to adopt the biotech bill and not leap frog like Africa did with mobile technology. “Cant we skip the biotech law and move on to gene editing if the technology is now archaic?” he asked.

The Uganda biotech bill drafted in 2012 already has support from the highest office, the Uganda president, Yoweri Museveni, but has failed to get enough support from parliamentarians for it to be passed. “I have repeatedly said that there is nothing wrong with this technology. However, there are lots of controversy due to misinformation which unfortunately seems to have been bought by some legislators,” said Yoweri Museveni.

“My government created the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MoSTI) in June 2016 to provide a basis for enhancing sector coherence and coordination,” said Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni in a speech read for him by Hon. Vincent Ssempijja, the Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

Museveni said the priority for the STI ministry is to spearhead the re-tabling and consideration by Parliament of the bill, which “must be adopted for Ugandan farmers to access biotechnology products to increase their production.” Uganda drafted the biotechnology and biosafety bill in 2012, and the Ministry of STI is working towards its enactment into law.

“Uganda should learn from other countries and pass this law now. And it should be done in a way that you do not go back to parliamentarians for amendments. The warning is that do not repeat the mistakes of other countries,” said Bongani Maseko, from South Africa, General Manager at AfricaBio.

“If it is passed we are supposed to celebrate. Ultimately, it will send a strong signal to other African countries. But if it does not go through we shall re-strategise but we shall not be mourning,” said Dr. John Komen, Assistant Director and Africa Coordinator, Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS). Dr. Komen and other biotech experts attending the conference said Uganda’s bigger challenge is actually not just passing the bill but how to operationalise it.