Agricultural scientists in Rwanda are pushing for GMO seeds that could help fight against pests, diseases, and drought that are devastating major crops in the country. The views about adopting Genetically Modified Crops (GM crops) follow the adoption of GMO seeds by Kenya which is part of the East African Community (EAC). Genetically Modified Crops (GMO crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering methods. Genetic engineering refers to the science involved in the selection of desired genes responsible for specific traits from a species and transferring them into the genes of another organism, thus modifying the second species’ genetic makeup. Kenya recently lifted a ban on the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops amid the worst drought in 40 years. This includes white maize, the country’s main staple. According to Athanase Nduwumuremyi, an agricultural scientist from Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), five crops namely Cassava, Irish Potatoes, Maize, Banana and fruits, in Rwanda are facing the unusual attack of diseases and pests and therefore Genetically Modified seeds are needed for sustainable response. These major diseases, if not dealt with, could trigger food insecurity, he said. Cassava crops are attacked by two major destructive diseases – Cassava Brown streak disease known as Kabore and Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) known as Ububembe which threaten cassava production in the country. For instance, National cassava production dropped from 3.3 million tonnes to 656,924 tonnes in 2013 and 900, 000 tonnes in 2014 due to Kabore disease. Maize crops are attacked by armyworms locally known as Nkongwa and other pests. Fall armyworm is one of the most damaging invasive species to have emerged in Africa in recent years, resulting in production losses and disease control costs of about US$65.6 billion a year, according to a study by Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI). Fruits such as mango trees are being attacked by pests known as ‘mealybugs’. The “mealybugs” were first reported in East Africa in 2019 where three countries namely Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi were affected, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). RAB officials told The New Times that the mango yield could decrease by over 80 per cent if the pests are not controlled. “I was thinking of cutting down all my 300 mango trees because I was harvesting nothing after failing to control the invasion of the pests. I wanted to replace the mango trees with avocado trees,” Faustin Twagirayezu, a farmer from Nzige sector of Rwamagana district testified. Potato crops are mainly attacked by the late blight disease. Late blight, a potentially devastating disease affects potatoes and tomatoes and infects leaves, stems, potato tubers and tomato fruits, spreading quickly in fields and can result in total crop failure if untreated. According to the International potato Centre (CIP), in East Africa, the disease can destroy as much as 60-100 per cent of the crop. “The disease erodes 80 per cent of expected produce if a farmer has no financial capacity to afford required agro-chemicals. It affects the crop during rainy seasons which are also seasons for growing potatoes,” Apollinaire Karegeya, a farmer in Musanze District said. Banana crop is attacked by Banana Xanthomonas Wilt, the banana disease locally known as “Kirabiranya”. The disease -which is very easily transmissible through insects, strays and contaminated farming tools-was reported in Rwanda in 2001 and it has since affected about over 4,000 hectares. “In 2018, I lost about 40 per cent of one tonne banana harvest after the disease,’ said Jeanine Nyirakabanaza, a farmer of Kayonza district, Rukara sector. Currently, Rwanda is mulling over using biological control or using other imported insects known as parasitoids to fight against pests instead of pesticides. Confined trials for GM cassava and potato Nduwumuremyi says that with special permission from Rwanda Management Authority (REMA), so far confined trials are being carried out for producing GM cassava and GM potato seeds which are resistant to diseases that are affecting them. “We need new seeds produced through agricultural biotechnology that are resistant to all such diseases, drought, and pests. It will also help to increase production and address food insecurity. GM crops have no effect on human health so far according to different researches. We have institutions like Rwanda Food and Drugs Authority and REMA that will monitor any GM seeds and products on the market to ensure they are safe,” he said. Law to be submitted to parliament soon Amandin Rutayisire, Rwanda’s Focal Point at Cartagena Protocol told The New Times that Rwanda has to first carry out enough consultations before adopting law on GMOs. Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. The agreement which Rwanda ratified to ensure bio-safety in using GMOs was adopted in 2000 and entered into force in 2003. “We have been progressing well since 2018. The draft law will soon be taken to parliament for scrutiny and approval. The draft law has already passed through Rwanda Law Reform Commission and Prime Minister’s office for inputs. This is new technology in our country which needs first public awareness and consultations before adoption,” he said. He said that the progress was also affected by Covid-19 pandemic disruptions. “We can’t say that have delayed because only Kenya in the region has adopted GMOs after more than 10 years. For us, we still need infrastructure, capacity building, and raising awareness about GMOs. Kenya is ahead of us in terms of research,” he noted. He said that they are closely working with agricultural institutions on agricultural biotechnology. Pacifique Nshimiyimana, an agricultural scientist at Alliance for Science Rwanda, said that the biosafety law could not only look at GM crops in Rwanda but also establish a framework for agricultural biotechnology and research in general. “Scientists can’t easily import materials to use in agricultural biotechnology research without this law. The law will also guide access to local genetic materials by foreign researchers in agricultural biotechnology. After the law, there will be an authority in charge of the implementation. We hope the law will be enacted soon,” he said. According to African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), over seven countries in Africa currently grow GM crops apart from those in commercialization. Through the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) Project, the organization facilitates constructive conversations among key stakeholders and decision-makers on agricultural biotechnology in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malawi and Rwanda.