Debate rages over GMO adoption to raise productivity

Sunday January 28 2018

A confined field trial of GM banana plants in Kawanda, Uganda.

A confined field trial of GM banana plants in Kawanda, Uganda. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG 

By RODRIGUES RWIRAHIRA
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Stakeholders are urging caution in the Rwanda’s quest to adopt genetically modified organism technology, with some proposing that other options for increasing agricultural productivity be exhausted before reverting to GMO’s.

Like many countries in East Africa, Rwanda has been apprehensive about introducing GMOs over fears that their impact on the environment and health of human beings is not well known.

Appearing before the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, outgoing director-general of the Rwanda Agricultural Board, Mark Cyubahiro Bagabe, said it was time for Rwanda to adopt GMO’s.

Divergent views

“It is a time we had a debate about GMOs because we are exposed to them on a daily basis, since many imported food products are GMO,” he said.

Dr Bagabe was appearing before the Senate to explain what was holding back agricultural development in the country. He said debating adoption of GMO’s would help harmonise divergent views and this would later inform official policy.

However, agronomists argue that Rwanda has not exhausted the full potential of yield-enhancing legacy technologies such as increased use of fertilisers and better land and crop management.

“Rather than introduce GMO technology, we should exploit existing approaches in biotechnology to increase output. GMOs call for more skills and expertise that we don’t currently have and could end up costing us heavily,” said agronomist Bernard Gatebuka.

“There are also fears around safe use of GMOs and these fears will have to be addressed before GMOs become acceptable to the public,” he added.

Concerns

The senators raised concern over the country’s agricultural research and development plans, which were not being fully implemented due to financial constraints,  a centralised budget and poor co-ordination between research centres.

“The pace of research is wanting especially if you measure it against set goals, targets and government investment,” said senator Perrine Mukankusi.

The senator said lack of informed policies is one of the reasons programmes like land consolidation and crop intensification are still facing resistance from the public.

“There is a lot of resistance by the public on a number of programmes including land consolidation, crop intensification, which should have been informed by research,” she added.

Land consolidation policy

In 2012, the government adopted a land consolidation policy to help promote more efficient use of land and application of agricultural interventions for increased productivity.

The legislators also questioned the effectiveness of some research stations whose output has remained low and called on the agricultural ministry to work on proper co-ordination between the research centres.

“Based on our observations, many research centres are dormant and working at a snail’s pace. We need to see changes,” said committee chairperson Gallican Niyongana.

Dr Bagabe, cited lack of of skilled workers and low investment as impediments to more research.

He said the budget allocation for research needs to be increased from the current Rwf5 billion ($5.9 million) to Rwf30 billion ($35.4 million).

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