Special Reports

Storm As Makerere Don Labels GMO “Bio Terrorism”

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cure http://crfg.org/wp-content/plugins/jetpack/functions.global.php geneva;”>Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC), a government body, has written to Makerere Vice Chancellor, Prof Ddumba-Ssentamu, accusing soil scientist Giregon Olupot of “public misconduct, maligning scientific “, stirring up sectarian sentiments and decampaigning the government bill.”

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Olupot is a lecturer at College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES).

In a letter, dated May 21, which was been leaked to Chimpreports on Monday, UBBC Chairperson, Erostus Nsubuga further tells Ddumba to take action on what he says is a “a serious matter of concern.”

“Olupot has on several occasions decampaigned the Bill (as one that has been designed to facilitate killing of nature, indigenous crops and biodiversity in Uganda); terming the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) as “a conduit for international dirty Mosanto money”: describing scientists (especially molecular biologists), stakeholders like DBBC and Members of Parliament (MPs) in support of the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill as “bio-terrorists!” charged Nsubuga.

He further says Olupot has “engaged in widespread lies and disinformation designed to create hatred, animosity and fear in different sections of society.”

“He claims molecular scientists extract genes from pigs and inject them in cattle – a blatant lie deliberately used to arouse hatred by the Muslim community against scientists. He falsely accuses scientists for developing genetically-modified chicken and breeding Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize and Bt bananas that contain harmful chemicals which kill pests and also kill other insects and the crops themselves,” added Nsubuga.

“He has been hosted on FM radio stations especially KFM (a Nation-Media Group radio) where he is introduced as an expert on molecular biology which he is not and doesn’t make a disclaimer as any ethical professional would do. Instead he attacks molecular science in all manner and form, labeling molecular scientists and stakeholders in biotechnology science as bio-terrorists.”

The confidential letter speaks volumes of secret wrangling between independent scientists and activists on one hand and government officials on the other over the controversial Bill commonly known as GMO.

Nsubuga and Olupot could not be reached for comment.

But Makerere College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences publicist, Jane Anyango, confirmed that Ddumba asked the College for a report on the matter.

“However, I am not sure whether our principal has responded or taken action. I will need to consult,” Anyango told this investigative website.

We have also seen a letter from the College Principal’s office, acknowledging reception of communication from “the Vice Chancellor indicating that the Chairperson of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium has written to him complaining about one of our members of staff decampaigning the Biosafety Bill 2012 and would like the university to take action against him.”

“The Vice Chancellor has written to request our College to review the letter from the Chairperson and advise him accordingly. The purpose of this letter is to request you to give me two names of staff from your school who are experts and knowledgeable in Biotechnology and Biosafety who will constitute an Adhoc Committee to review the document,” the principal wrote on May 27.

Observers say UBBC intends to intimidate the lecturer from using media platforms and other channels to speak out about the Bill that continues to receive resistance from activists, researchers and politicians.

According to Peter Magelah Gwayaka, a researcher and advocate, “when you read the Ugandan Bill, you will realize it makes it easy to sell, transport and distribute GMOs in Uganda unlike other countries which restrict this.”

He adds: “For example the Bill makes it easy to get genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to research and to release them. To do such a research all you need authority from the board of the institution such as a company you are working for. Compare that with Tanzania, Kenya or South Africa which requires a government license to carry out GMO research and then a periodic permission.”

Gwayaka further notes that in South Africa or Tanzania being licensed to do GMO is not enough as you will still need period permit to do research which helps government to monitor what you are doing and yet this has been dropped in Uganda’s Bill.”

The researcher says the Bill should focus on regulating as opposed to making it easy for anyone to have GMOs. “We cannot live without GMOs, but we need to regulate how we use them in the country and that is what the Bill should do.”

FURY

Nsubuga said in March 2013, when Makerere University was given an opportunity to present its petition on the Bill to the Science and Technology Standing Committee of Parliament, Dr. Olupot made an alternate presentation to that of his university colleagues who prepared a joint informed opinion.

“He even claimed that the government and indeed scientists and legislators in Uganda had been bribed to pass the bill. This act alone surprised and disturbed legislators. These are outrageous remarks by an academician in charge of training students in soil science. The M’Ps demanded to know if he was insinuating that the Committee or indeed any MP had been bribed by Monsanto. They also demanded that he produces evidence of the bribe money. He shyly asked if he could withdraw his statement. He was informed he had made it without coercion; therefore it was recorded on the proceedings of the Committee,” Nsubuga wrote.

He maintained the Bill was a result of over 20 years formulation and national stakeholder-wide consultations, by the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), under the Ministry of Finance.

Nsubuga further said the Bill is also a part of a structured process to meet international requirements to enable the country conform to the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of 1992 and its subsequent legally-binding Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) of2000-both of which were ratified by Uganda.

“In order to domesticate the above international laws, Government of Uganda in April 2008, approved the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy – an official position which recognizes that the modern science of biotechnology has to be utilized for socio-economic development, in a responsible and regulated manner,” said Nsubuga, adding, “And as a requirement, the Government has had to operationalize this policy by formulating the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, which among other core functions.”

He said the proposed law provides a regulatory framework that facilitates the safe development and application of biotechnology.

“It also provides a Biosafety (legal and institutional) framework to regulate research and general release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”

From February 2013 to-date, the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament, has been conducting public hearings and consultations on the Bill with a view to soliciting inputs and contributions, to be integrated into the law-to-be.

Currently the committee is writing its report from this three-month grueling process in which NGOs, CBOs, public and private institutions participated openly, with written submissions.

GMOs questioned

Uganda has steadily been drawn into the GMO debate over the past years. In June 2008, two short months after the cabinet approved the 2008 Bill, news broke that the first ever field trials involving GMOs in Uganda had failed dismally.

The GMOs in question were GM bananas developed by the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in collaboration with the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL/Belgium) from genes isolated from rice, to increase resistance to black Sigatoka disease. The trials were supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Indeed, USAID has been extremely active in Uganda over the years, aggressively promoting the adoption of GM technology in that country. It has trained several Ugandan scientists, supplied state- of- the- art equipment and installed a level- two Biosafety Greenhouse at Kawanda. USAID is also funding GM cotton trials, and although field trials have been approved, these have not yet commenced.

Genetically modified banana research, however, continues to be a priority for Uganda – the world’s second largest banana producer after India. Research regarding GM nutritionally enhanced bananas has attracted funding from the Gates Foundation, for the development and field testing of GM Cavendish bananas, utilising local cultivars modified to express either increased pro-vitamin A, vitamin E, or iron.

Uganda is also part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)[iv] a five-year research programme to develop GM drought tolerant maize, under the auspices of industry backed African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). WEMA is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed funding of $42 million[v] to the programme.

Money from USAID, the Monsanto Fund and the Gates Foundation is also paying for virus resistant greenhouse experiments involving GM cassava in Uganda.

Uganda, along with Kenya, are both poised to be testing grounds for various GMOs in the ensuing years. The Biosafety Bill will be an important tool to ensure that these activities take place.

Researchers speak out

According to research by SEATIN, a reputed international organization, the Bill is similar to the Biosafety Bill of Kenya approved by the Kenyan Parliament.

“And it is our respectful view that the Uganda Bill is, in many respects, similar to its Kenyan counterpart, as if it was drafted by the same person/s. It bears little or no resemblance to the African Union’s Model Law on Biosafety,” said Mariam Mayet.

Mariam maintained the Biosafety Bill establishes a typical administrative permitting system for the regulation of GMOs in Uganda.

“It is also an enabling statute in respect of which, secondary legislation will have to be passed to bring the legislation into force. As it currently stands, it is not legally operational. Field trials and the importation of GM food aid into Uganda will continue to take place in a legal vacuum.”

According to Mariam, the Bill introduces strange and confusing unscientific concepts for research and development involving GMOs.

She says this appears to have been done with the intention of creating the impression that open field trials are undertaken in confined conditions where no adverse impacts to human health and the environment may occur.

The Bill designates the country’s National Council for Science and Technology as the competent authority in charge of GMOs in Uganda, including receiving GM applications and granting approvals.

“It has wide ranging powers set out in no less than 14 different provisions. Whilst written authorisations are required for GMO activities, and risk assessments for these activities must be conducted, any activity or GMO may be exempt from authorisation provisions or be subject to fast track procedures,” said Mariam, adding, “Uganda is clearly in a hurry to introduce GMOs into its environment.”

“Convoluted, cumbersome and contradictory provisions have been created in regard to cessation orders, access to information and confidential business information. The public will be hard pressed to understand the legal import of these provisions. Attempts have been made to ensure public participation, but these provisions may be of little comfort to Ugandan civil society if exemptions and fast track procedures are applicable for GMOs released into the environment or imported into Uganda for food, feed and processing,” observed Miriam.

“Duty of care provisions have been crafted as well as administrative measures for damage to the environment, restoration of the environment and so forth. However, these are not sufficient to deal with the complexities that underpin a comprehensive liability and redress regime. Labeling of GM foodstuff is another area requiring urgent and further work.”

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