Rwanda takes early steps towards legalising GMOs

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A maize plantation in the countryside. The draft bill will soon be forwarded to the Law Reform Commission for review. File.

Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) has drafted a law governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Rwanda which will soon be forwarded to the Rwanda Law Reform Commission for review.

The draft bill was prepared along with the National Biosafety Framework, biosafety policy and regulations according to officials.

The objective of the legislation is to ensure adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling, and use of GMOs resulting from modern biotechnology that may have an adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

The draft law also takes into account risks to human health, to provide a transparent and predictable process for review and decision-making on such genetically modified organisms and related activities, and to implement the Cartagena Protocol to which Rwanda is a signatory party.

GMOs can be defined as organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The technology, WHO states, is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”.

It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, and between nonrelated species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.

Speaking to The New Times, Emmanuel Kabera, the National Focal Point for Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, said that the draft legislation, the policy, the national biosafety framework and regulations consider various aspects of GMOs application, including placing on the market food or feed products, environmental release, contained use, emergency cases, among other things.

In Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and South Africa have biosafety laws in place, he said.

Though the country is already protected through existing policies and laws, there is need for specific laws and regulations to ensure the country’s preparedness for proper management of risks that may result from modern biotechnology.

It is expected that the proposed law will serve to complement other legislations for sustainable protection of biological diversity in a rapidly changing and globalised environment.

He noted that when the absence of such a law creates a vacuum where everyone can do whichever way they want.

Regulation with caution

According to the biosafety focal point, ‘‘if we look at our country’s agriculture and biodiversity at large, they often face a combination of constraints.’’ Some of those constraints are geographical and structural while others are climatic and biotic in nature.

‘‘So, farmers who are predominantly smallholders, make a living from small family plots, typically measuring less than 1ha. In some of our regions, soils have become impoverished and others prone to drought, soil erosion and floods, he said.

“Research about GM crops is very important as it is looked at with the potential to contribute to agricultural development that range from crop yields to stress-related constraints caused by pests, diseases and climate change effects, among others.

However, we need to be careful and opt for a precautionary approach. There are persistent concerns about the safety of GMOs to consumers and the environment,” he said

Dr Patrick Karangwa, the Head of Research Department at Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), said some people fear that GMOs could cause cancer yet such fears are baseless, because some countries such as the US have been using and consuming foods that were produced through GMO technology for over 30 years.

Highlighting the importance of effective and well regulated genetic engineering, Karangwa said that experts in biotechnology can realise that a crop is being attacked by a pest which destroys it causing yield damage, and, for instance, they take a gene from an herb whose smell repulses such pest, and transfer it into that crop.

The result, he said, will be that the pest will no longer damage the crop because of the traits of the leaf it loathes which are in the crop, hence saving farmers from yield loss.

“What we consider most important is to have the means to use such a GMO technology, including having laws that regulate it so that it is not done by anyone who does not have capacity to do it, or might have bad intention to endanger people’s lives,” he told The New Times adding that GMOs can play a great role if it is effectively used.

He said that Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have started the GMO technology but at a small scale.

According to him, Rwanda is building capacities in research and biotechnology to make the most of this technology.

As per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in order to produce food in a sustainable way for an additional 2 billion people by 2050, a business-as-usual approach will not be sufficient; rather, science and the application of biotechnologies as well as conventional technologies will play a key role.

The World Health Organization says that GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.

No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.

Once the pieces of legislation have been approved by the Law Reform Commission, they will be forwarded to the Cabinet and eventually taken to parliament for consideration.

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