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Hauling bananas to market in Kisoro, Uganda.

ANDREY GUDKOV/Alamy Stock Photo

Uganda removes key hurdle to GM crops

KAMPALA—Biotech researchers here are celebrating the long-awaited passage of a bill this week that clears the way for large-scale field tests and commercial release of genetically modified (GM) crops. Uganda, with several engineered varieties waiting in the wings, is expected to join a handful of other African nations moving quickly to bring homegrown GM foods to the market.

Introduced in parliament in 2013, Uganda’s National Biosafety Act lays out a framework for regulating biotechnology, including the creation of a national scientific committee to oversee GM research. Critics argued that the legislation would threaten food security by ceding control of commercial seeds to foreign companies. They also claimed that GM foods would not be palatable, and that the engineered genes might escape into the environment and taint native varieties. Seeking to tamp down concerns, Uganda’s science minister Elioda Tumwesigye said at a press briefing here today that the government would safeguard indigenous crops by banking their seeds. “We may need them in the future as a standing point as we go on modifying,” he said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has in the past expressed support for the bill, is expected to sign it into law within a month. “It is a great, great achievement,” says Erostus Nsubuga, a biotechnology entrepreneur working on GM bananas at Agro-Genetic Technologies, a company in Buloba, Uganda.

Uganda has carried out preliminary studies, including confined field trials, on several engineered crops: bananas resistant to xanthomonas wilt, a lethal infection that is spreading in Africa, cassavas resistant to cassava brown streak disease—a viral scourge that has hit East Africa especially hard—and Water Efficient Maize for Africa, a variety developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center that is being field tested in several African countries.

So far, just two countries on the continent have commercialized transgenic crops: Sudan, which grows GM cotton, and South Africa, which grows GM cotton, maize, and soybean.