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[KAMPALA] The Ugandan government has announced that genetically modified (GM) foods can be imported into the country — but that they should be used " strictly for consumption", and not for cultivation.

In a statement released last month, the government's National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) says that the government "recognises the controversial nature of this subject and has therefore decided to proceed with caution, building consensus at all stages."

The statement, signed by NARO director-general George Otim-Nape. adds that "policy decisions should not adversely affect the development of science." — an acknowledgement that some scientific questions about the potential environmental risks of GM crops remain open.

This is the first time that the Ugandan government has declared an explicit policy on GM foods. However, the issue has been rising rapidly up the country's political agenda in recent months.

Last year, President Yoweri Museveni launched a biotechnology laboratory, which is now carrying out tissue culture of bananas, coffee and other crops (see Banana lab opens in Uganda). Scientists are preparing to carry out experiments involving genetic modification at the laboratory, emphasising that at present this is being done purely for research purposes.

At the same time, a draft law that would regulate both research into GM crops and the release of GM organisms has been submitted to the cabinet, prior to being voted on in parliament.

According to Otim-Nape, the position of the Ugandan government is that GM foods can be considered safe for human consumption until proved otherwise. At the same time, he says, given that long-term risks cannot be entirely ruled out, Uganda will continue to "build capacity to understand, assess, evaluate and manage potential risks and benefits of biotechnology".

Many scientists in Uganda have welcomed the statement. Edward Kakonge, a professor of biochemistry at Makerere University, Kampala, for example, says that as long as GM foods are imported strictly for consumption and not for planting, then the risks will be minimal.

But he urges caution on the cultivation of GM crops, citing concerns that genes may be transferred to other species. "The long-term outcomes are unpredictable," he says. "These things can start off well, then problems emerge later."

In contrast, the government's stance has been criticised by several non-governmental organisations, which argue against the import or local production of GM crops. John Bigyemano, a consumer activist, says that the government's position is unwise. "We will oppose the government's stand," he says. "Our position is that GM foods should be considered as dangerous until proved otherwise."

Bigyemano also complains that certain GM-based products, such as breakfast cereals and cooking oil processed from GM foodstuffs, are already being sold in Uganda without this being revealed on their label. This, he says, violates consumers' rights to choice, information and protection from harmful products.

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