GMO bill: a case of a cart pulling the horse

Last week parliament passed a law that specifically regulates the creation, development and application of biotechnology.

The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 was first read in parliament in February 2013. In simple terms, if it becomes law, this bill will provide for the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

From the onset, this bill provoked a lot of controversy and a bevy of pro-GMO scientists put up a spirited fight against those opposed to it. A number of multinational corporations involved in production of GMOs began a subtle public relations offensive.

They funded several MPs, journalists and scientists alike to go to countries where GMOs had been a ‘success’. When these returned to the country, they did a great deal of propaganda, sometimes verging on personal attacks against those that opposed some of the provisions in the bill.

Whenever an article emerged in papers questioning the urgency of the use and spread of GMOs, it was met with immeasurable hostility. Proponents spoke as if science and, particularly research about GMOs, was foolproof.

They reasoned that the world’s population was expected to expand, yet the amount of farmland is shrinking. For that matter, they argued that biotechnology was the only way to feed that growing population since more yields are harvested from less land.

The clincher was that GMOs mean cheaper and more food to fight hunger especially in such poor countries as Uganda. They further argued that if farmers in Uganda adopted this science, they would cut costs for production and realize better revenue.

However, scientists were not honest to equally tell the MPs and the entire world the financial and legal ramifications of adopting GMOs. For instance, most ordinary farmers (not commercial farmers) cannot afford to buy seeds whenever it is planting time.

What GM seeds actually do is that they lock the farmer and seed and fertiliser entrepreneur in unconscionable contract. The GM seeds do not give a chance to farmers to harvest and create or preserve some seeds (as it used to be in olden days) for the next planting season.

Just like computer scientists make money by creating the need to further insulate oneself against harmful malware by introducing new antidotes such “super” antivirus for a fee, so will be the case with GMOs.

The farmers or users will be inflexibly tied to the controls of these seed producers for solutions and thereby create an infinite market for their products. Will that really solve poverty in Uganda? Will that make the lives of Ugandans better? I have my doubts!

This bill has been passed at a time when many people world over feel uneasy about GM foods.  And it is not only about food. We have to look at everything from animal welfare and the economics of the food industry and safety.

The concern is that while the bill has come up with some penal sanctions and policing agencies, we are embracing GMOs without proper studies on their environmental and health impact.

The lack of a trusted society of scientists in this field means that Ugandans may be used as a huge laboratory to test how GMOs behave in our bodies and environment. By the time we realise the real impact of GMOs, it may be too late.

What happened when we embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) which were crafted, marketed and imposed on Uganda as the panacea for Uganda’s economic problems? We ended up in a deeper hole before experts came to just say sorry!

As a consequence, we are stuck and perpetually tied to the World Bank and its affiliates to solve our economic problems. Further, there have been bad times when medical drugs that were believed to be good ended up creating insurmountable medical puzzles on humans and the environment.

However, while the bill has tried to incorporate the spirit of biosafety enshrined in the various conventions to which Uganda is a signatory or party such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits, this spirit is likely to be defeated because Uganda does not have the human resource to ensure enforcement of the provisions of the bill.

All enforcement agencies supposed to ensure that before GMOs are released on the market are properly labeled as such or to ensure that disposal of GMOs into the environment meets the competent authority’s standards, are likely to face the same hurdles as Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) or National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

UNBS’ efforts to fight counterfeit products on the market are miserable. Equally, Nema is more or less like a poor man’s dog, which keeps barking at a bone-wielding thief but never enforces the boss’ commands because of conflict of interest.

So, the law may have been improved with safety measures, but Uganda is not ready to embrace GMOs.

Author is a director at The Observer.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd