Genetic resources are of immense economic and environmental significance to the world. Genetic resources include all plant and animal species that contribute to peoples’ livelihoods by providing food, medicine, shelter, fiber, and energy (Hammer et al. 2009). They are mainly used as a source of food for humans and animals, breeding programs to enhance agricultural, forestry and livestock productivity and as raw materials in the medicinal and food industries. They are crucial to attempts to feed and sustain the steadily increasing global population (Arunachalam 2013). These genetic resources are a reservoir of genetic adaptability that acts as a buffer against harmful environmental changes and economic challenges (FAO 2010).
Uganda has a rich genetic diversity comprising of about 38,700 species – including roughly 5,950 species of animals and 32,800 species of plants held in a range of habitats; Although Uganda covers only 0.02% of the World’s total surface area, 11% of world's known species of birds and 7% of mammals are harboured here (Africare 2001). Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (GRFA) directly or indirectly contribute to about 24.1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (UBOS 2021/22). It is however concerning that the Genetic resources are now seriously threatened by genetic erosion.
The rate of destruction of GRFA is alarming i.e. forests which once covered 1.5 million hectares now occupy less than 0.8 million, GR are further being affected by limited value addition and under-exploitation of the market potential for the genetic resources products, impacting the country’s economic development, health, food and nutrition security and environmental protection. It is therefore, not acceptable to think of Sustainable National Development while Neglecting Genetic Resources conservation for Food and Agriculture. It is high time a regulatory framework for conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources assented to- in order to ensure on going sustainable use of these genetic resources, diversity for improved, better adapted varieties, breeds and species that can cope with changes in the environment and human health through their nutritional and medicinal properties.
ESAFF Uganda on 9th of February 2023, joined the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries (MAAIF), National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO)-Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) and other Civil Society Organisations i.e. PELUM Uganda, ACSA among others at NARO-PGRC in Entebbe to update stakeholders about the on-going efforts for the finalization of the National GRFA policy, discussion of the potential representation and development of TORs for the National GRFA advisory committee and its sub-committees as well as discussing a road map towards supporting and actualization of GRFA policy and strategy for the country. This came as a result of MAAIF endorsing the policy as a stand-alone framework for the conservation of the genetic resources.
Mr. John Okiror, Commissioner Policy- MAAIF informed the meeting that a regulatory impact assessment was conducted and the report recommended a policy and an accompanying implementation plan development to strengthen both ex-situ and in-situ conservation of Uganda’s genetic resources; However, Mr. Okiror stated that MAAIF later thought that GRFA policy can be merged with other sector policies hence an establishment of a committee to review and harmonize all the sector policies and frameworks that were thought to be merged with the GRFA policy. The Commissioner highlighted that the committee looked at Plants, Animals, Aquatics, Microbes and Invertebrates. Only the plant sector had the National Seed Policy, Plant Breeding Act and Plant Variety Protection Act. Aquatics had the Fisheries and Aquaculture Bill 2021 while Animals and Microbes had no legal and policy frameworks.
Dr. Kiwuka Catherine indicated that even when the plant and Fisheries sectors have some laws and policies as mentioned by Mr. Okiror, the frameworks do not cover issues of genetic resources and conservation as suggested in the draft GRFA policy. Dr. Catherine mentioned the existence of the National Organic Agriculture Policy 2019 as a holistic production management system which aims to avoid the use of synthetic and harmful pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators and livestock feed additives to reach a long term goal of sustainable production of crops and animals following the principles of fairness, ecology and health- However, she expressed dissatisfaction that the policy does not give a prominence to genetic conservation as stipulated in the GRFA policy.
Mr. Okiror informed that after a thorough assessment and analysis of the frameworks, the National Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture policy and its corresponding Implementation Plan to stand alone was authorized by MAAIF though be broadened to encompass plants, animals, aquatics and microbes and changed the naming to National Policy on GRFA that addresses seed, breeding and genetic resources. The Commissioner, however advised that there is need to sensitize new leaders at the Ministry of Agriculture on GRFA given its new leadership and associated issues like conservation, access, bioprospecting and bio piracy that needs to be streamlined to support strategic deployment of the resources for national development. He concluded by assuring that the GRFA policy will soon undergo approval process and implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes.
Members in participation agreed that there was need to formulate a pressure group to spearhead advocacy and lobbying for the approval of the GRFA policy. The suggestions of the institutional composition of members constituting the group included Parliament, Cabinet, CSOs among others. Strategies for engaging the Permanent Secretary (PS) and other Cabinet Ministers on GRFA was discussed.
Ms. Joyce Brenda Kisingiri from MAAIF advised that to push for GRFA –there is need to package GRFA on how it can influence marketing, nutrition, health and protection of fragile ecosystems in form of information papers to create awareness.
Members thought the need to have a comprehensive costed roadmap for the process while incorporating the GRFA awareness into other thematic celebrated days especially world food day among others. It was agreed that the next engagement should be a 3-days retreat to work on the information packs. PGRC & MAAIF was tasked to draft a budget to facilitate the retreat. Members also agreed that the retreat should have representation of technical people from other sectors of GRFA e.g., animal, aquatics and microbes, update the draft policy with the current statistics as well as the need to conduct at least two regional consultations and one national consensus workshop.
While genetic diversity represents a treasure of potentially valuable traits. It is under threat and if sustainable development is to be realized, GRFA must be discussed extensively and other special efforts are needed to conserve it both in-situ as well as to develop a strong capacity to use it to benefit both the present and future generations. Hence the need for a specific legal and policy framework for GRFA.