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GMO Regulations In the Offing-NEMA

“NEMA has the mandate to devise guidelines and measures to manage GMOs. So I think we should abandon the idea of getting a GMO law,” he said.
How Oxitec mosquitoes are produced. Credit Oxitec

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The National Environmental Management Authority-NEMA is drafting regulations for genetically modified organisms-GMOs to operationalize sections of the NEMA Act, 2019.

The NEMA Executive Director, Dr. Tom Okurut, says the proposed regulations are a stop-gap measure in the absence of an enabling law for the safe development, research and release of biotechnology including GMOs into the environment.

Biotechnology is generally defined as any technique that uses living organisms or substances from living organisms to make or modify a product, improve plant, animal breeds, genes, or micro-organisms for specific purposes. These techniques are employed in agricultural, medical, industrial, and environmental sectors to improve the quality, the number of organisms, and products.  

Uganda started developing a biotechnology law in 2004. The government tabled the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill in Parliament 2012. However, the bill had not yet reached the second and third reading by the time the 9th parliament dissolved in May 2016. It was reinstated by the tenth parliament on July 15, 2016, and thereafter referred to the science and technology committee on 5th November 2016.

Parliament passed the bill twice.  But President Yoweri Museveni refused to assent to it on both occasions. Museveni first returned the bill in December 2017 citing 12 reasons. He noted among others that Parliament should change the title of the Bill to GMO because it focuses on the regulation of genetically engineered organisms. Museveni also asked MPs to add penalties for scientists who mix indigenous animals and plants with GMOs and to provide for patent rights on indigenous varieties.  

In 2018, Parliament passed the bill as the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill after reconsidering Museveni’s proposals.  However, Museveni returned the Bill to Parliament in August 2019. The former speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga noted that Museveni had introduced new clauses that Parliament must consider before he assents to the bill.  

Museveni noted that while the country must have a law that permits scientists to carry out research and make scientific breakthroughs but it should also safeguard Uganda’s beautiful ecology and diversity. Article 91 (6) of the 1995 Uganda Constitution provides that when the President refuses to assent to the same bill twice and Parliament passes the bill for the third time with support from two-thirds of all members of Parliament, “the Speaker shall cause a copy of the bill to be laid before Parliament and the bill shall become law without the assent of the President.” 

Kadaga however noted that although she could have evoked the constitutional provision, she noted that Museveni raised valid points that require reconsideration. She referred Museveni’s letter and the bill to the committee on science, technology, and innovation. However, the tenure of the tenth parliament expired before the bill’s third reading. Okurut says the bill could stay longer on the shelves of parliament because it has been misunderstood by scientists, activists, politicians, and the general public.

 

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He says that as a result, NEMA is now spearheading the development of GMO regulations to operationalize section 63 of the NEMA Act, 2019. This section states that NEMA may in consultation with the relevant lead agency (in this case Uganda National Council of Science and Technology-NSCT) “issue guidelines and prescribe measures for the protection of the environment and management of risks to human health from the development, access, use and transfer” of GMOs and for liability and redress in relation to GMOs.

“NEMA has the mandate to devise guidelines and measures to manage GMOs. So I think we should abandon the idea of getting a GMO law,” he said. Okurut says the regulations will have the input from the Ministries of agriculture, water and environment and science, technology and innovation, and other stakeholders. He says the stakeholders will have to repeat what they have done for almost 15 years by sensitizing the newly elected MPs about GMOs.  

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Okurut says the regulations will be ready by July this year and will be presented to Parliament by the Environment minister

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Affected Projects

In the last two decades, several projects including research and GMO trials have been ongoing. These include 9 GMOs projects currently under the National Agricultural Research Organisation-NARO. They include developing bananas that are drought-tolerant, resistant to bacterial wilt, weevils and nematodes, drought-tolerant, and insect-protected transgenic maize. Others are anti-tick vaccine for cattle, potato resistant to late blight disease, cassava-resistant to brown streak disease plus drought, and low soil nitrogen rice.

In the health sector, Uganda Virus Research Institute-UVRI is researching developing GMO mosquitoes. The same project is taking place in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ghana to control malaria. Prof. Jonathan Kayondo, the lead researcher for the project run under Target Malaria Program, says the GMO mosquitoes are an alternative to interventions like the use of insecticide and treated mosquito nets.

He says Uganda requires between US$ 5 to 9 billion in a period of 5 years to contain malaria through mass distribution of mosquito nets. He, however, says that releasing GMO mosquitoes into the environment will be cost-effective because the bioengineered male anopheles mosquitoes, which don't bite humans, will mate with the wild female mosquitoes (that carry the malaria parasite) that will kill larvae or make the females infertile.  

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However, he says he is not sure if the GMO mosquitoes will wipe out all the wild female mosquitoes.

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In the absence of a law, Kayondo however is concerned that this project will not be able to take off by 2030. But Okurut believes that the NEMA regulations for GMOs will provide the legal framework for research and safe release of such GMOs into the environment.

However, Frank Muramuzi, the Executive Director National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), says the regulations cannot substitute a substantive law for biotechnology. He also opposes the development of GMO mosquitoes.

"What will happen to insects that feed on mosquitoes? Will they not also die or become infertile after eating GMO mosquitoes?" he asked. Adding that "Scientists should stop playing games with God's creations. Let's continue sleeping under mosquito nets."

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