Science & Technology Insights

A student’s insight into the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012.

As student of Biotechnology, I argue that whereas biotechnology is not a panacea, it is an indispensable technology. This edge cutting technology is globally poised as a solution to renowned challenges in diverse disciplines (health, agriculture, industry and environment) and hence should be embraced in Uganda.

It is important to note that tertiary institutions have trained a reliable human resource in the field of biotechnology and an example being Makerere University which trains and equips students with knowledge and skills in this discipline through postgraduate and undergraduate programs has trained about 400 graduates since 2004. This reflection could guarantee enough human resource and the country’s readiness to embrace the technology in terms of human resource. It is pertinent to avoid isolating biotechnology from biosafety.

Uganda already has laws, regulations, and policies (The Animal Disease Act (Cap 38), The Plant Protection Act (Cap 31), The Agricultural Seeds and Plant Act (Cap 28), National Environment Act (Cap 153), The Food and Drug Act (Cap 278) and others) which have a bearing on biosafety management especially as regards Genetically Modified Organisms’ (GMO) use, but they fail to mention this aspect. The urgent call to have a national explicit legal framework that adequately caters for biosafety issues in relation to safe application of modern biotechnology should not go unanswered.

The country is now at advanced stages of developing this law to guide biotechnology application. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 in parliament has caught public attention and the public is engrossed in a heated controversial debate on the Bill’s intent and ultimate purpose. Uganda is signatory to both the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992 (CBD) and its legally binding protocol the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, 2000 (CPB). The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology applications. Whereas biotechnology as a science is an indispensable technological tool to address various agricultural, environmental, health and other challenges, its safe application should be priority for the Pearl of Africa. In my opinion, the biosafety word in the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 should be the definitive element of the soon to be National Biotechnology and Biosafety Act.

Whereas some sections of civil society have been advocating for a bill that is more precautionary, I would like to state that the bill in its current form is adequate precaution in itself. As everyone may be aware, you cannot release GM crops to farmers without this law being passed to guide scientists and relevant government agencies on how this will be handled. The entire bill is premised on putting in place mechanisms, institutional frameworks for risk assessment and management with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the products of genetic engineering are safe to human health and to the environment. The bill before Parliament provides for adequate level of protection in the field of research, development, safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms taking into account the risks on environment and human health. Thus, Uganda is saying, let us not only regulate the products of this technology but also the process of developing them.

Part 2 of the bill designates the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST) as the National Competent Authority. With reference to the most current creation of the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (MoSTI) in Cabinet, this ministry is better positioned for designation as the National Competent Authority by National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012. The Ministry should establish and empower a Directorate for regulation of biotechnology including designating an officer at the rank of a Director to serve as the Registrar for Biosafety and such a department should be resourced enough to enable the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) perform its work of conducting risk assessments (with support from expert staff in the Ministry). The directorate should therefore have sufficient staff and resources to enable Uganda comply with the article 4 of the Cartagena that requires comprehensive risk assessments to be conducted before approvals for release of GM crops into the environment for use by farmers. As far as the National Focal Point is concerned, the Bill designates the Ministry for Environment as the National Focal Point on matters of Biosafety. This is the Ministry that has always been responsible for Uganda’s multilateral agreements on environment of which the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one, and thus I support the idea that it should continue to do so as provided for in the bill.

Globally, public participation is recognized as an important tool for promoting sustainable economic growth and development. Whereas the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety requires all parties to promote and facilitate public awareness, education and participation and the bill provides for public participation under Article 7h (i) and Clause 23(3) and (4) which includes sending applications for general release to relevant Ministries and agencies for presentations, publishing on the Website of the Competent Authority and in the National Gazzette for the public to make input. I am however of the view that the applications for general release of GM crops should also be published in at least one (1) newspaper of national circulation. This will enhance and promote the right of the public to contribute to decision making on this important technology.

In a nutshell, Uganda’s readiness and need to embrace biotechnology should not compromise the formulation process of a proper and implementable legal framework to address the potential risks therein taking into account human health and the environment. I consider the question of whether to embrace biotechnology different from the question of whether to pass the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, 2012 and I therefore think that Parliament should move quickly and enact the National Biosafety and Biosafety Bill 2012 taking into considerations of the views it has gathered from the public since November 2012 when fresh public consultations by the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament were re-opened.

Jonan Twinamatsiko is a student of Bachelor of sxience in Biotechnology at Makerere University, Uganda. Follow him on twitter @twinejonan

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