The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, commonly known as the GMO Bill, is back in parliament but the controversy that caused its five-year delay hasn't gone away, as the NRM caucus showed us last week when the matter came up for discussion.
Parliament was forced to shelve it, again, after many MPs spoke out against it, claiming it's being fronted by powerful international players for sinister motives.
The bill aims to regulate the safe research, development and usage of biotechnology. While opening the annual agricultural show in Jinja on Tuesday, President Museveni maintained that the bill is long overdue. Prof Morris Ogenga Latigo, an eminent scientist who is also MP for Agago North, argues in this letter to his colleagues that there is nothing to fear about GMOs but, rather, everything to gain:
The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 is now before our 10th parliament for consideration and enactment. This is a highly technical bill that for long has endured relentless highly emotive campaigns against biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
To enable members appreciate the context, purpose and content of the bill, and debate and enact the law on the basis of clarity and objective information, I have prepared this scientific background information that frames and contextualizes the bill.
I have done this not because some foreign entity is paying me to enact the law as some claim about MPs. HELL NO! Those who know Prof Latigo well know that this can never be the case. I am doing this because this bill is necessitated by the needs of our country that we as parliamentarians are obligated under the Constitution to address by enacting appropriate laws.
More importantly, I saw the potential of Molecular Biology as long ago as the late-1980s when I was winding up my PhD studies at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Nairobi.
In 1996, as an academic at Makerere University, I became the focal point on biotechnology and a founding member of the National Biosafety Committee of the National Council for Science and Technology. I served the council for 20 years (part of it when I was an MP in the 7th Parliament), and only resigned in 2006 when I became Leader of Opposition.
In the 20 years, we supported biotechnology capacity development for Uganda through graduate training and supporting establishment of dedicated biotech laboratories. With progress, we developed the National Biotechnology Policy and early drafts of the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill.
I am, therefore, deeply obligated to the country to inform and enlighten members, and to do whatever I can to ensure that this bill is passed into law to serve the best interest of our country, our farmers, and agriculture that I love and am so deeply involved in.
In doing so, I act as a patriotic Ugandan of known academic, research and political leadership track record and deep conviction, and one keen to share his little knowledge on crop improvement, biotechnology and GMOs with colleagues, and never because of having been remotely corrupted or bribed by anybody.
My specific views on the bill, on the main and minority reports from the committee, and on the proposed amendments of the various clauses of the bill will be shared with you during the second and third readings of the bill.
Biotechnology is an applied science that derives from the core field of biology, and the core subject of genetics, both of which have developed over time and in complexity, and have become highly specialized and sometimes difficult to appreciate in the context of our cultures, religious beliefs, and our day-to-day life experiences.
From being the study of living organisms in their wholesome, biology has now developed to the molecular level, hence the field of Molecular Biology. Similarly, from the study of inheritance and inherited physical variations in organisms, genetics has moved to the levels of chromosomes, DNAs, genes, RNAs, etc. and their manipulation, and out of which progress has emerged the science of genomics.
Biotechnology applies these advanced knowledge and capabilities to generate modified life forms and their products in ways that transcend the ordinary boundaries of nature and the ordinary limits of natural processes.
Thus, in agriculture, whereas traditional biology talks about species barriers in the inability to share genes amongst organisms that do not interbreed, biotechnology allows us to move desired genes from one species to another regardless of nature’s sexual barriers. This has enabled us to exploit genes that exist in nature,and created by God as the building blocks of life, without the limits inherent in traditional methods of crop improvement.
Beyond biotechnology, the science of Synthetic Biology and its applied field of “bio-hacking” are also now merging where, rather than genetically modifying crops or animals to do the things we want, we now use knowledge to imitate nature. Thus, amazingly, we are now able to produce milk without cows or beef without cattle.
Crop improvement and the imperative of biotechnology
In the beginning, man relied on natural gene changes (mutations) to generate plant variations and diversity that he exploited by chance and choice, and refinement through repeated selection. With the advent of genetics, we were able to deliberately cross plants of the same species to create variants and to then select for use those plants with attributes we most desired. This was the advent of conventional breeding.
More recently, rather than waiting for nature to modify genes and create plant variants for us to select from, the discovery of radioactivity allowed us to imitate this natural gene change process. Using radioactive substances, we have been able to deliberately induce gene changes (mutations) and to then select mutant plants that best suit our needs that we then cross with other desired plants of the same crop in conventional breeding processes.
This approach to crop improvement became known as Mutation Breeding. Building on these sexual reproduction approaches to develop new crop types, the study of genetics later showed us that when you crossed plants of the same species from two lines of a crop that have distinct and stable attributes, their offspring were more vigorous and had positive attributes greater than the additive value of the attributes of the two parent lines.
This was the phenomenon of hybrid vigour, also seen in our half-caste children being physically much more vigorous in growth, size and activity than their two parents.
Breeders then began to develop pure crop lines of maize, etc. that, when crossed, produced hybrids with superior performances. So, emerged hybridization as a crop breeding technique, the products of which are the hybrid crop varieties that yield far more than varieties developed using conventional breeding.
Hybridization and hybrid vigour have so far capped plant performance improvements.
Nevertheless, hybrid breeding has been improved beyond the two pure line crosses. Now, we enhance performances and plant characteristics through double or multiline hybridization where two pure lines are crossed and the products of their crosses are further crossed to produce double or multi-line hybrids.
In all the above crop improvement approaches, there is always one natural barrier to the sharing of genes between different crops to produce desirable characteristics. In nature, a desirable gene in species A cannot be moved to species B because of the species barrier rule which says that one crop species cannot breed with another crop species.
Thus, whereas one maize type can cross with another maize type, maize will never cross with cotton. If a cotton line is resistant to a plant disease X, therefore, using conventional breeding, the cotton can be crossed with another cotton line that has good characteristics but is attacked by disease X.
Through repeated crossing and screening, a cotton line will eventually be developed that will possess both the good characteristics and resistance to disease X. This then becomes the new disease-resistant cotton variety.
Even when the disease X attacks both cotton and maize, as often happens, however, the resistance to disease X identified in cotton cannot be transferred to maize through conventional breeding because of the species reproductive barrier.
In the quest to break this species barrier so that the disease resistance in cotton can be shared with maize and other crops, scientists developed techniques for transferring desirable genes across species using their understanding of molecular biology, genomics, and biochemistry. The techniques so developed became known as Genetic Engineering, and the science that encompasses the whole process became known as Biotechnology.
Monsanto and GMO Crops
Monsanto was the company that developed the herbicide glyphosate, which in the sixties and seventies was marketed in Uganda as “Roundup” and was extensively used to control weeds in coffee and banana fields. In the various advocacies against biotechnology and GMOs, this company and its products are the “demons” used to scare us off.
Glyphosate is a general-purpose insecticide that is basically less poisonous to man than a strong drink of caffeine of coffee. It is not a poison to us because we do not have cell receptors on which it must attach in order to react with and kill our body cells. Thus, when we swallow or absorb glyphosate, our kidneys merely filter it out and is mostly excreted unchanged in urine.
In weeds, however, glyphosate is absorbed by leaves and transported to roots. There, it binds with a single enzyme and disrupts root metabolism. The root then dies, stopping the plant from taking up water and nutrients, and the plant is gradually starved to death. This explains why when we apply glyphosate today weeds remain green for days before turning yellow and drying up after two to three weeks.
As glyphosate became widely used, it was noticed that certain plants did not die even when the glyphosate dose used was high. Monsanto scientists, in studying this phenomenon to overcome the limitations of their product, identified these plants as having ability to break down glyphosate and render it harmless to the resistant plants.
From their study to understand why their herbicide did not work, the Monsanto scientists saw an opportunity of transferring this herbicide resistance attribute from weeds to crop plants, such that now, plants with the resistance attribute can be grown with weeds and glyphosate is then used to eliminate the weeds but not the crops.
Monsanto identified and isolated the gene that was responsible for producing the enzyme that broke down glyphosate once it was sprayed on the resistant weed and introduced it in crop plants (maize, soybean). To protect its commercial interest, Monsanto patented the gene and the process of its transfer into crops.
Using genetic engineering, they transferred this gene into maize, and later soybean, and developed their own commercial GMO maize and soybean varieties that could be grown with weeds but that would not be killed when glyphosate is applied to kill weeds growing with them.
This is the genesis of the controversies about GMOs, Monsanto, and the supposed dominance of biotechnology, genetic engineering and seed supply by multinational corporations.
Because of the gene patent restriction secured by Monsanto, the only option left to fight Monsanto was to demonize biotechnology, the products of genetic engineering, and the company’s GMO crop varieties.
Hence the claims of: the evil of foreign genes, the carcinogenicity of glyphosate or Monsanto’s GMO maize, the “sinister plans of multinationals to deprive us of our indigenous seeds and food sources”, etc. The truth, however, is far from this.
Controversies surrounding biotechnology and GMOs
There have been numerous attempts to scare us off biotechnology and its GMO crops and products, through arousing uncertainty and deep fear of the unknown. The scare-mongering is, however, essentially unjustified and absolutely unjustifiable in science, facts and realities.
Firstly, there is no gene that is foreign. The mould for the bricks used to construct all living things is the gene. The traits of a human being, for example, are based on the expression of approximately 80,000 genes packaged in structures called DNAs. The genes that are inherited from our parents contain all the biological instructions (moulds for making the bricks) for building a human being.
Just as each unique brick mould will produce a unique brick, every gene in the DNA codes (instructs) the making of only one unique protein (enzyme) needed in our biological processes. Whether that brick is used to build a latrine, a residential house, etc. does not matter because, wherever it is, the brick will do precisely what it is supposed to do only, and can never become cement or paint.
Similarly, a gene will encode for only that one protein required to fulfill a particular function in the building of a living organism, be it a bacterium, maize, banana or us humans, and we share many such genes. In fact, around 96% of the genes in us humans are shared with chimpanzees and mice, and we humans share approximately 99% of our DNA with other humans, 98% with chimps, 70% with slugs and 50% with bananas.
So, where does the distinction and the fear of “foreign” genes or DNAs and their harmful effects when a gene from another source is inserted into a crop come from, particularly when the genes involved in GMO crops are even from other plants?
If that one gene that codes only the making of that one enzyme that breaks down glyphosate and nothing else is inserted into a maize variety so that the maize becomes resistant to glyphosate, where do the claims of harmfulness or risks of it causing cancer then come from? So, what is the fear of biotechnology and GMOs based on, and why the extreme caution about GMOs?
Secondly, whether in conventional breeding, mutation breeding, hybridization, genetic engineering or even human reproduction, new characters are only produced because the original genetic compositions of the source parents have been modified. In other words, every life form that is different in character and other attributes from any of the parents, as we all are different, is essentially and truthfully a genetically modified organism or GMO.
The only difference now is that crops modified through the process of genetic engineering or biotechnology are called GMOs, and are feared and demonized, whereas all the other crops that are also genetically modified using conventional breeding methods, are now called non-GMOs, are not feared or demonized, and are easily accepted.
Thirdly, we can never take control of biotechnology and use it to define our future and utilize it to address our challenges and fulfill our needs unless we build our internal capacities and take charge of the science and the opportunities it offers us, our competitors and the world.
China did not counter the threats and dominance of nuclear USA or Russia by propagating the fear of nuclear science. Instead, they built their capacities in nuclear science and relevant technologies, and ability to exploit the potentials embedded in the science. And now they are part of the world’s nuclear powers, with the USA and Russia, and respected by the two countries.
Fourthly, as Ugandans, the threat to our key crops, coffee and bananas, by the emergence of new diseases (bacterial wilt, etc.) offers us the best opportunity to appreciate the value of biotechnology and genetic engineering to the security of our country and people.
Bacterial wilts have devastated our coffee and banana crops because the varieties we grow do not possess resistance to these diseases. For coffee, if we are to develop new resistant varieties through conventional breeding, it means we have to first identify coffee plants resistant to the wilt, and grow them and cross them with our commercial varieties.
We then have to test thousands of their offspring to identify plants with resistance to the wilt, and also grow the resistant plants to determine whether they have the same commercial attributes of our susceptible varieties.
Where the identified resistant lines do not meet our standards, we have to undertake repeated backcrossing with the susceptible parent and repeated selection until we get the desirable varieties resistant to the disease for release to farmers.
Since the maturity period for coffee is at least four to six years, this conventional breeding approach will require 20 to 30 years for us to develop new coffee varieties resistant to the wilt. In these 20 to 30 years, what would happen to our coffee industry, to the livelihoods of our farmers, and to the economy of our country?
The challenge is even worst for our bananas that do not reproduce sexually, and are only propagated vegetatively. Thus, even if we identify a local banana line resistant to bacterial wilt, it is not possible to transfer that resistance to the other susceptible banana varieties through conventional breeding because our bananas do not breed or cross in nature sexually.
Thus, for our bananas and coffee, that multinationals have little interest in, our only means to protecting them against emerging diseases, pests and the challenges of climate change, or to quickly improve them to meet our needs, is to develop our national capacity to identify sources of resistance and other desirable genes and to be able to quickly move these genes within the pool of our coffee and banana varieties through biotechnology and genetic engineering.
If we reject biotechnology because some people have demonized it and GMOs, what options do we have for our country?
Here in Uganda, since the late-1990s, we recognized the potential of biotechnology and embarked on building our capacities (human resources and labs) to exploit this potential for rapid crop varietal development in light of emerging new diseases and pests, the effects of climate change and drought, and the need to produce enough food of the right qualities to meet our needs now being made urgent by our rapid population growth.
Consequently, we have built a large body of highly competent and internationally recognized scientists who are working diligently, honestly and selflessly in our ultramodern biotechnology laboratories at Makerere University, Kawanda, Namulonge, etc., but who are being held back by the absence of a legal regime to enable them work without fear of potential undefined liabilities.
The operational framework to enable our scientists engage in biotechnology capacity development and its exploitation, in conformity with international standards and protocols, is this National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill that meets the international standards set out in the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB).
The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, now before parliament, is a draft law formulated by us as a country to enable us safely develop our biotechnology capabilities in order to secure our future and wean and protect us from potential dependence on, and bondage to, multinational interests.
This aspiration will never be achieved:
When we are driven to legislate out of propaganda and fear, and out of unfounded suspicion that the bill that was developed and introduced by the government of the ruling NRM party is actually a bill pushed by multinationals to meet their selfish interests.
When our scientists, whom we invested in and are working in the field of biotechnology, are demonized, maligned and presented in bad light, and their voices ignored, and when the falsehoods propagated by CSOs and some non-biotech scientists about the dangers of biotechnology and GMOs are instead believed and are the basis of our legislative drive.
And when our individual biases - religious, political, ideological, etc. - take precedence over our obligation to legislate in the best interest of our country.
Against the above, I make a passionate appeal to us all, Members of the 10th Parliament, individually and collectively, to accept the facts of biotechnology and our national aspirations to exploit its potentials as the sole basis for inputting into the process of considering the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 now before us, and to trust in the expert advice that our scientists and some of us, your colleagues, are able to offer to the august House.
Please let us take our obligation to act as patriots and to legislate non-emotively, and in the best interest of our country and people, most seriously.
The author is former Leader of Opposition, 8th parliament, MP Agago North and member, Pan-African Parliament. He is also a former member of the Uganda National Biosafety Committee (1996-2006)