Parliament has been considering the Biotechnology Bill 2012. By its naming alone this Bill would leave eight in ten Ugandans shrugging. It is not touching on miniskirt or alcohol or boda boda, they would say. But there is more to this so-called GMO Bill than meets the eye.
In the latest development, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga stood-over the debate on the Bill and asked members to carry out further consultations before it can be brought back for debate.
Understandably, debate on this Bill has not received even a quarter of the media coverage it deserves. The luck of scrutiny of this draft law means the many misconceptions about what the Bill is about and actually provides are at the mercy of the legislators.
As Parliament consults further on the Bill, the following issues would be important for consideration.
The Bill is wrongly titled “Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill.” While the draft law only deals with some aspects of genetic engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms, it leaves out other aspects of biotechnology.
Biotechnology is generally includes use of living organisms to make a wide number of products which can range from food products like yoghurt and beer, medicine and industrial products. GMOs are just a small component of biotechnology. The Bill only deals with the GMO aspect.
It is for this reason that some commentators believe the naming of the Bill was a deliberate ploy by some actors to hide the fact that it was intended to make it easy for companies and individuals to introduce GMOs in Uganda while hiding under regulation Biotechnology.
Indeed, the parliamentary committee recognises this gap and recommends that another law should be made to regulate biotechnology in Uganda. However, the committee maintains the same confusing name.
The other important thing to note is whereas the Bill has the word “biosafety” in its name, it does nothing to set standards for biosafety, be it for GMO-related matters or for biotechnology. In fact, from its provisions, the Bill seems to have intended to ease GMO research and use without setting any standards as to safety.
The same can be said of the lack of proper provisions for environmental standards and punishment of persons who pollute the environment using GMOs. Whereas the parliamentary committee has recommended that conducting Environmental and Social Impact Assessments be introduced in the Bill, it has not made efforts to provide for punishments of those who may not conduct these assessments.
Another important issue to consider is the lack of requirements for labeling items containing GMO products. Labeling is an important aspect of informed consent, which would enable a person who choses to us a product to be aware of the GMO content found in the product he/she is using.
Many countries have adopted this approach similar to cigarettes labeling to enable their populations have a last decision on when or when not to use GMOs. This has, however, been left out in Uganda’s case.
The Bill does not put in place systems that would protect indigenous plants and crops and their genes. This puts indigenous crops and plants at risk of getting extinct or mixed with GMOs which might have negative consequences for feature generations.
It would be important for Parliament to consider these and more issues that concern the local farmer. More important is to engage farmers and gather their views on the role of GMOs in agriculture generally.
Magelah Peter Gwayaka is an associate at Resource Rights Africa and a socio-political commentator