MPs fight GM crops
By Badru D. Mulumba
August 28, 2003
The Monitor, 'Uganda's only independent voice'
KAMPALA - Lawmakers from eastern Africa have warned against the importation of genetically modified products.
The warning comes shortly after President Yoweri Museveni has recently approved the importation of processed GM products. But scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) are yet to approve the importation, according to a Naro report.
Mr Museveni allowed the importation last weekend while opening a research laboratory at the Kawanda Research Institute. Museveni reportedly said US President George W. Bush sold him the idea.
The President's move comes as the row over GM products rages between Europe and the United States. Europe is opposed to GM imports.
It also comes two weeks ahead of the fifth World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico. Issues relating to genetically modified products will be debated at the meeting.
Museveni's position has stirred fresh concerns and suspicions among lawmakers, scientists, and civil society groups.
Seeking regional stand
Mr John Odit (Erute South), the chairman of Parliament's Committee on Agriculture, said on Tuesday that a meeting of chairpersons of counterpart committees from the region's national assemblies has been called to discuss GM products - both plants and animals.
This is because, he said, information about effects of these products is scanty, and there are no laws to monitor their use. "There should be no importation of GM crops until we are completely sure of its effects," he said.
Legislators from Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda met in Kampala on Monday. They will again meet in Nairobi in November. "We are concerned with the movement of GM crops across borders," Odit said. "We believe that regional assemblies should take a position."
Naro ban on imports
Naro on its part wants a law enacted to guide the use of GM products.
A report signed by the Deputy Director General (Research), Dr John Aluma, says: "Further requests for importation of non-GM seeds (cotton, maize) from countries like [South Africa] which are already growing GM crops with Monsanto have also not been approved. To the best of our knowledge there has not been any official importation of GM seeds into Uganda."
Aluma told The Monitor by phone on Tuesday that a final copy of the report - first released on October 22, 2002 - was completed last month.
The report points at risks from the terminator gene, which means that plants cannot be propagated by replanting seedlings. It warns that unless Uganda puts in place a Food and Nutrition Policy to ensure food security, "we may be forced to accept GM foods as the case is in Southern Africa."
"We are demanding for the policy. We want government to come up with a policy," said Ms Victoria Ssebagereka, the MP for Kayunga district. "My main concern is to know what I eat," she said. "We are not lacking in food." Ssebagereka sits on the Agriculture committee.
But the report warns that Uganda lacks the capacity to distinguish between GM and non-GM products. This makes the country vulnerable to the smuggling of GM products. Aluma's report proposes a moratorium "until the country puts in place the necessary human resources, facilities, laws and regulations" to handle them.
"This will also allow for some concrete results from research being undertaken elsewhere to determine the safety of GM. We did that with Mad Cow Disease.
"The government should also set up a small task force to specifically monitor developments in GM crops and get advice from time to time."
However, one of the largest promoters of GM products, Monsato is promoting biotechnology trials in Uganda, according to the report.
Monsanto is funding research in various projects including cotton. But MP Odit said, "Even this has a danger because even the pollination used is wind. They [GM crops] can be dispersed by wind."
The MPs, however, are not united in their opposition to GM products. Prof. Ogenga Latigo (Agago) backs Museveni on GMs. "Well, the President says that only processed products should be allowed."
The United States, Ogenga said, has some of the highest environment standards and so its products should be safe.
Ogenga is an agriculturist.
"If they are allowed in their country, the best we can do is to accept them," he added.
"The only thing is we have to ensure that they don't eat something else and give us something different. Everything in this world has a potential negative impact. All we need to do is create capacity to avoid the negative."
© 2003 The Monitor Publications