Proposed changes to Ugandan Biosafety Act a threat to scientists

Ugandan plant scientists face severe financial penalties and decade-long jail terms if proposed changes to the recently passed Biosafety Act 2017 are adopted, experts say.

The draft changes also would undermine several important crop breeding programs intended to reduce pesticide use and boost food security in the East African country.

The Ugandan scientific establishment and its international partners are extremely concerned about the proposed changes to the legislation, which were drafted after Uganda’s President questioned the more moderate, science-based act that Parliament passed in October 2017.

A draft of the new bill states that any “person who carries out genetic engineering shall prevent any contamination or commingling of the genetically engineered organism with any non-genetically engineered organisms” indefinitely.

Experts are concerned that this language could work to prevent genetically improved crops from being used anywhere in the country, as neither farmers nor breeders would be able to prove that commingling would never take place in the field or the marketplace.

The penalties for anyone found in breach of this clause are drastic. A scientist accused of such an offense would be “liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding two hundred and forty currency points [equivalent to US$1,300] or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to both.”

Senior scientists at plant breeding institutions in Uganda, several of which are using genetic engineering techniques to improve staple crops in an effort to reduce rural poverty and pesticide use, fear that the legislation would leave most of their staff vulnerable to being thrown into jail.

Threats to Uganda’s staple crops, which are currently being addressed by the use of plant genetic engineering, include corn stem borer, cassava viruses, banana bacterial wilt and an invasion of the voracious, maize-consuming fall armyworm caterpillar.

In all three programs, “confined field trials” are now underway and plant breeders had hoped the first resistant varieties would be released to farmers as early as next year. Instead, many years of work could be lost before a single crop is ever released to a Ugandan farmer.

In his letter to Parliament, President Museveni wrote: “To be on the safe-side, the genetically modified seeds should never be randomly mixed with our indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem” and insisted that “green houses” should be used to “imprison the pollen of the GMO seeds.”

The President also wrote that “effluent from the GMO material should never mix with our organic materials” and that the “use of poisons and dangerous bacteria as the inputs in genetic engineering must never be allowed.”

However, virtually all laboratory genetic engineering over the last 30 years has used a plant pathogenic bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens to shuttle genes into the target plant cell. The President’s stipulation calls this proven technique into question, and could also apply to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), legal experts told the Alliance for Science.

Bt is widely used around the world to protect organic and conventional crops against pests, and would be the centerpiece of efforts to combat the fall armyworm, which has recently been devastating maize crops throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The proposed changes to the law, if accepted, could result in shutting down several crop breeding programs intended to benefit the subsistence small-holder farmers who produce most of Uganda’s food. Many of the scientists involved, who now work in internationally-coordinated programs, might end up working in other countries instead.

In recent years, anti-GMO activists aligned with NGOs based in the capital Kampala — many funded from sources in Europe — have spread baseless fears that GMOs cause cancer or could result in the elimination of “indigenous” crops. The group ActionAid had to apologize two years ago after airing national radio adverts falsely claiming GMOs could cause cancer or infertility, and the government shut down its operations.

The influence of anti-GMO activists can be seen in the new proposals that introduce so-called “strict liability” into crop breeding regulations. The concept of strict liability, which was first introduced to Africa by European activist groups over a decade ago, has been used elsewhere on the continent to de-facto prohibit any use of genetic engineering, even in research.

Tanzania recently relaxed “strict liability” due to fears that its crop breeding programs were falling behind the rest of the world, and because scientists were unable to adequately tackle problems such as cassava brown streak virus and banana bacterial wilt without the tools of genetic engineering. Ethiopia has also followed suit.

Under the draft legislation seen by the Alliance for Science, “any person seeking redress for any damage or harm arising from a GMO activity” may take a scientist to court. In addition, new clauses implicate all senior members of staff in the targeted institution, opening the door for anti-science groups to seek to criminalize numerous staff members at entire plant science institutions.

Specifically, the draft introduces an extremely punitive “offense by body corporate,” where “every director and office of that body corporate shall be taken to have committed that offense.” This would potentially threaten jail terms for multiple members of senior staff at any scientific institution in Uganda where a single researcher has been using genetic engineering.

The new draft further states that a “body corporate which commits an offense under this act and is found liable, shall be strictly held liable and adequately compensate for any damage, harm, inconvenience or loss caused to the environment, biodiversity, the ecosystem, species of flora and fauna or human and animal health”— language that experts fear is so broad and all-encompassing as to effectively prohibit the use of genetic engineering in its entirety.

African biotechnology stakeholders say that President Museveni, who openly supports the use of genetic engineering to improve crops’ resilience against diseases, pests and impacts of climate change and previously condemned miss information about the technology, should be made aware that such changes would only end up curtailing halting the very breeding programs he supports.

The Parliamentary sectoral committee on science technology and innovations, which must now consider whether to reject or accept the cabinet proposals, might just be the savior of the technology, observers say.

Whether the committee adopts the current language in its report to Parliament for debate and voting will likely depend on the ability of the wider scientific community to mobilize and defend plant scientists from this unexpected new threat.

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