Rwanda is set to join other Eastern Africa countries in growing genetically modified (GM) Irish potato varieties, a technology that has, in the past, attracted wide-ranging public scrutiny in the country.
Dr. Patrick Karangwa, the Director General of Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), told participants at the African Potato Association (APA) in Kigali that the country will try a potato variety called Victoria because it has proven to be resistant to late blight, a destructive potato disease locally known as 'Imvura'.
The move comes after the country initiated enacting the law governing genetically modified organisms last year. The law is yet to be passed.
The potato variety has been developed by International Potato Centre (CIP), Karangwa said.
"That disease-resistant potato variety which was developed through genetic modification has many benefits to the farmers because it cuts the costs that they were incurring on pesticide sprays. In addition, it will reduce harmful effects that the pesticides were causing to environment," he said.
Experts say that adopting genetically modified crops would help boost output and cushion farmers against losses stemming from diseases.
Eric Magembe, CIP's Sub-Saharan Africa Molecular Biologist, says that genetically modified potatoes can produce about 40 tonnes per hectare, compared to about 10 to 12 tonnes for the conventional variety though the later also requires spraying.
CIP says that late blight cost developing countries an estimated $10 billion in lost revues through reduced yields.
"We saw that, with that GM potato, we will be producing 68 per cent more profits. And, the qualities such as the flavor, taste, as well as proteins are the same compared to the original variety because what changed is only being conferred resistance to disease," Magembe said.
While Africa is under pressure to produce more food to feed its growing population, genetically modified crops, which are seen as the solution, remains a controversial issue.
Some countries banned the technology, citing health risks.
Karangwa said that although the technology remains controversial in many African countries, including in Rwanda, there are clear health and economic benefits.
He disclosed that the ministry of agriculture in collaboration with other institutions is set to embark on a research oriented towards genetically modified organisms for development.
"So, we need to get prepared in terms of testing (the Victoria potato variety) to ascertain its benefits and potential, any problems it might have but also an effective regulatory framework so that we can take measures accordingly," Karangwa said, pointing out that they were in talks with Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) expedite the law governing genetically modified organisms.
Rwanda produces 916,000 tonnes of Irish potatoes every year, making it the third most staple food crop produced in the country after cassava and sweet potatoes
It is also an important cash crop in the North-Western parts of Rwanda, according to information from RAB.