By Dennis Katungi
Finally, the Biosafety Bill 2012 which has been in limbo for the last 5 years has finally been passed by Parliament. If the President assents, which he sure will, it should be an Act of Parliament pretty soon. This is arguably one of the finest pieces of legislation that will grace our statute books in recent years. Come to think of it, opposition to this law has always been on shaky grounds based on half truths and fear of the unknown. Nevertheless, it had support from powerful quarters. The President, his Cabinet, eminent Scientists, farmers federations and Science for Development.
It had vocal opposition too, using the negative side of genetically modified organisms - possibly the reason it crawled along at snail’s pace. It was bedeviled and made to look horrible. Debates on how best to promote sustainable and inclusive development are incomplete without a full consideration of issues of science, technology and innovation (STI). Access to new and appropriate technologies promote steady improvements in living conditions, which can be lifesaving for vulnerable populations and drive productivity gains which ensure rising incomes.
In recent arguments for and against the Bill, the Minister of State for Agriculture Hon. Kibazanga was quoted saying that any resistance against science in any field, more so in agriculture means that you are telling our people to remain poor. I couldn’t agree more. He argued that in order to maximally exploit the potential of our agriculture sector, we need to adopt this technology where necessary but more so, we need to regulate its use and educate the public about its crucial relevance to their livelihoods.
There are two essential STI issues that need to be tackled simultaneously in the development agenda. Firstly, innovation driven growth is no longer the prerogative of high income countries alone, some developing countries have achieved significant economic growth through the creation and development of science, technology and innovation capacity. In Uganda,cutting edge innovations have been confined in labs and trials at Namulonge & Kawanda. The science needs to move from trials to practice. Also, the law is needed to ensure safety in the use of the technology, empower technical competence for the regulatory process and promote informed use and decision making by all users.
Here in Uganda, in recent years, farmers have suffered with bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak. They have had pests attack coffee, cotton and other cash crops extensively. At the same time, Ugandan researchers & scientists have been developing a variety of genetically modified crops resistant to the host of diseases and pests. Alas, these advanced solutions could not be applied to overcome challenging agricultural production constraints because there was no enabling legislation.
So, in Uganda, STI policy has been pursued independently of the broader developmental agenda. It is critical that science technology and innovation be integrated into public policy goals. These efforts need to be made more participatory and inclusive so that there is public engagement in the scientific endeavor from the full spectrum of social actors, including women, youth, and indigenous communities. The passing of this Bill is certainly a land mark decision. In a developing country like Uganda, it’s not about innovating in laboratories; it’s about taking those solutions to the people. Its about adapting existing products and processes to achieve higher levels of productivity as applicable to our local context. The ability of local firms and enterprises to access technological know-how is fundamental to shaping their ability to provide products and services, both of the kind that are essential to improving living standards, but could also promote growth and competitiveness, elements that remain at a low ebb in Uganda.
The one day visit to NARO research stations at Namulonge and Kawanda last year, where we interacted with Ugandan scientists at the cutting edge of Biotechnology and crop science was a transforming experience for me. I realized that we needed that innovation in practice out of confined sites and I was informed by the researchers that it was not possible because Uganda did not have an enabling law. I have since been pro-actively campaigning for the passing of this Bill and I am delighted it has come to pass. Kudos to the 10th Parliament.
The Writer is the Communications and Media Relations Manager, Uganda Media Centre