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[genet-news] CONTAMINATION & REGULATION: Biosafety leak feared at Kawanda research station in Uganda

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SOURCE: Sunday Monitor, Uganda

AUTHOR: Kikonyogo Ngatya


DATE:   29.03.2009

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Uganda has violated an international environment convention that prohibits the leaking of confined live Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) into the environment, a Sunday Monitor investigation has uncovered.

The leak of potentially hazardous bio-waste is being blamed on careless disposal practices by scientists at the National Agricultural Research Laboratory (NARL) in Kawanda, Wakiso District. The scientists disposed of parts of GMO banana bunches that were still under investigation into the open environment contrary to international regulations.

Birds, cats, rats and other living organisms have been seen on the dumping site, feeding and exposed to the GMOs, whose risk level has still not yet been ascertained as per the requirement of the World Health Oragnisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture FAO) recommended Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety guidelines.

The immediate risk is possible environmental contamination ? with unknown implications for Uganda?s banana crop -- if one of the banana suckers was illegally moved out of the institute and planted.

The protocol to which Uganda is a signatory is part of the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Protocol to the CBD seeks to contribute to the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms - such as genetically engineered plants, animals, and microbes - that cross international borders.

The Biosafety protocol is also intended to avoid adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity without unnecessarily disrupting world food trade
Sunday Monitor has reliably established that the scientists burnt the GMO banana bunches and stems in an open air pit, despite having two incinerators at the site that should ordinarily have been used as prescribed under the guidelines.

The building of the incinerators at the site was a precondition to being granted a license to undertake the research.

Sunday Monitor was told that the leakage was caused by casual labourers who now essentially conduct most of field monitoring work because the scientists are ?busy attending workshops?.
?There is a per diem fever here. The scientists are more interested in chasing sitting allowances than doing their work,? a source noted.

Dr Ambrose Agona, the NARL head and Dr Opolot Okasaai, the Director of Crop Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture said they were shocked by the findings.

When asked whether the materials are supposed to be burnt or buried, Dr Agona said, ?No, no, that?s not the procedure. It is supposed to be carefully incinerated.?

He said he will raise the matter with the biotechnology supervisor, Dr Andrew Kiggundu, who is directly in charge of the confinement facility.

Dr Okasaai said he was going to direct an investigation on the leakage. ?Our fear is the GMO bananas getting into wrong hands,? he said.
He said all live GMOs must first be researched upon before being released into the community.

He, however, sought to downplay the possible consequences, saying: ?For vegetatively propagated plants like bananas, the threat is getting established without our knowledge. But for seed propagated crops, there would be a risk of pollen crossing into other varieties?.

He said the ministry was working with the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology to strengthen the capacity of the National Biosafety Committee, whose work is to enforce and monitor biosafety standards as per international biological conventions.

Dr Kiggundu declined to comment when contacted, saying as he was attending a meeting in Kampala.



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