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Uganda ruling party greenlights superbananas and other GMO

media Uganda-bound superbananas genetically modified in the US Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images

Uganda's ruling party has approved a bill that will give the green light to superbananas and other genetically modified foods. The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) parliamentary caucus has agreed on the controversial National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, signaling that Uganda will soon adopt a "GMO bill", despite farmers' and activists' concerns.

The hotly debated GMO bill is a framework to regulate the production but also the import and export, of biotechnology products.

"The most important thing is that Uganda must follow this global trend in terms of technological advancement and put in place a regulatory framework," explained ruling party MP Hamson Obua in a phone interview from Kampala. "Of recent our country has been faced with the challenges of drought, pests and diseases and our scientists have assured government that this is one of the remedies that can be put in place."

The bill's adoption by the NRM caucus guarantees its speedy passage in parliament.

A growing number of farmers are nonetheless worried that the bill could make them more dependent on patented seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, according to coffee farmer Morrison Rwakakamba.

He was not opposed to genetically modified crops – until he took party in a field project to test new varieties in his Kigongo district village. He found that the new coffee plants, touted as high-yield, were not as resistant as the old ones.

"The old coffee trees, robusta and arabica, were first of all giving us greater yield," he said in an interview. "They got susceptible to the coffee wilt disease and most of those coffee trees were wiped out. Now there is [an absolute] lack of interest and most farmers are going back to the old planting materials, the old varieties."

Rwakakamba is now convinced that the future of Ugandan farming is in organic crops.

Many Ugandan farmers already practice de facto organic production. But only about 200,000 are certified organic farmers – a condition for access to large organic markets like the European Union and Japan.

"The [agenda] is being driven by a certain club of scientists who are in our research institutions that are financed by external actors," Rwakakamba said. "You cannot sustain GM crops without fertilisers and pesticides. Armies of salvation have been giving us free inputs, but that is not going to last forever. Farmers are going to be tied into buying their seed and not making their seed."

Ugandan civil society groups would have liked the bill, drafted by the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, to have explicit provisions on the labeling of GMOs, enabling the public to exercise their right to choose GMO-free products.

The draft legislation fails to explicitly state that whoever introduces a GMO shall be strictly liable for any damage caused, according to civil society groups like the Food Rights Alliance.

"Members of Parliament have a responsibility to safeguard the interests of Ugandans against the interests of profit-oriented multinational companies and must take appropriate steps to ensure safety in the use of these technologies," Barbara Ntambirweki Karugonjo, law lecturer and researcher at  Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (Acode), wrote in an op-ed piece in the government-owned New Vision newspaper. "As Ugandans, we must be careful not to be bystanders and risk being swamped with GMOs. We need a strong legal framework to regulate GMOs in the country!"

MP Obua, the NRM caucus leader, counters that the GMO bill will provide farmers with a choice. "If a farmer wants to produce GM products, it’s OK. If a farmer wants to proceed with organic products, that will also be OK."

Uganda’s lack of legislation on GMO hit the headlines with the development of "superbananas", a genetically modified fruit in which researchers inserted a green pepper gene.

This new gene apparently prevents plants from dying from a bacterial wilt disease but National Agricultural Research Organisation were prevented from giving the seeds away free because Uganda lacked the legal framework under which they could have been distributed.

The government has failed to generate consensus on GMO and the issue remains controversial.

"The government has not been able to put a compelling case that Uganda needs to adopt GMO," explained Godber Tumushabe, associate director of the Kampala-based Great Lakes Institute for Security Studies, in a phone interview.

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