The number of hungry people around the world grew from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation.
And, with the world’s population expected to hit the nine billion mark in 2050, up from 7 billion currently, the threat of hunger will remain, at least for the foreseeable future.
It is in this context that researchers continue to promote use of biotechnology as one of the most viable strategies to help feed the world – amid continued adverse effects of climate change.
Yet the modern technology, best known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which the scientists argue is primed to revolutionise agriculture and livestock, has attracted criticism and skepticism from various circles.
Critics say the technology behind GMOs violates ethics and causes adverse effects on both human health and diversity of biological organisms.
Genetic modification is the changing of the material which helps in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of living organisms, so as to produce new organisms with different traits from natural phenomena.
In bid to boost food security, several countries around the world have embraced GMOs, while others remain skeptical about embracing the technology.
Rwanda is one of the latest countries to take early steps towards legalising GMOs.
An official at the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) early this month told The New Times that the environment watchdog had drafted a law regulating GMOs.
The Rwanda Law Reform Commission will review the draft before it could be submitted to cabinet for consideration and subsequently presented to parliament for further scrutiny before it can eventually be enacted into law.
The Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources, Gérardine Mukeshimana, has backed the move to adopt GMO technology, saying it would help feed the growing population.
Mukeshimana is a plant researcher and holds both a master’s degree and PhD in plant breeding, genetics, and biotechnology from Michigan State University, United States.
“You can’t forever stick to crops and methods of farming that our forefathers practiced in 1900,” she said.
However, the minister said Rwanda will first put in place the required legal framework before embracing GMOs.
“We need to get prepared first,” Mukeshimana said.
Vincent de Paul Bigirimana, a lecturer of crop science at University of Rwanda’s College of Agriculture, Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, said that genetically modified crops would help increase crop yield and quality through resistant and productive seeds.
He added that it would also help provide more raw materials needed by agro-processing factories.
However, he said, government will also need to invest in research in biotech crops to rule out legitimate misgivings about GMOs.
Martin Ntawubizi, a lecturer of applied genetics and animal breeding at the College of Agriculture, Animal Sciences and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Rwanda, said that although there is no scientific evidence to prove that GMOs are harmful to people, many countries have kept them at bay for fear of potential negative impacts.
Some of the risks linked to consumption of GM foods, such as meat from genetically engineered livestock, he said, include mutation that occurs when a part of the body changes and loses or increases its immunity, a phenomenon that may cause several diseases and conditions, including cancer, babies born with body deformities, among others.
According to the Chairperson of Rwanda Civil Society Platform (RCSP), Jean Léonard Sekanyange, any technology that can help increase agricultural production and improve farmers’ incomes and livelihoods is a welcome move.
If a chicken can lay two eggs, instead of one, he told The New Times, it means that farmers will get more production. “Similarly, if farmers can have access to an orange variety that can bear fruit in one year, instead of five years, it means a lot to the lives of the people.”
'New form of colonialism'
The bottom line, he said, is to ensure that the adoption of genetically modified foods is done in such a way that they do not harm the people.
But Ntawubizi warned that there are large multinationals in developed countries that actively promote GMOs in developing countries because of their business interests.
“They decide which seeds to give you,” he said. “It’s a kind of slavery, a new form of colonialism.”
He advised that the government can consider legalising only GM crops that have been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe for human consumption.
“That can be used as a pilot before opening up to other genetically modified foods as well,” he added.
According to a 2016 Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops study by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), up to 18 million farmers in 26 countries planted such crops on 185.1 million hectares in 2016, of which 19 were developing countries.
This represents a 3 per cent increase or 5.4 million hectares up from the 2015 figures.
Such GM crops include maize, soybean, and cotton.
The rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report says, highlighted multiple benefits to both large and small-scale farmers in industrial and developing countries that have commercially grown biotech crops.
This is simply called jumping on a bandwagon. Research shows that there has not been any developing country where genetically modified crops have improved the livelihoods of people. Show me one and I will show you a technical lair.
This is absolutely inappropriate. The process may discourage potential local industrial agribusinesses which will aggravate the food problem we already have.
This is a very terrible decision that completely negates our environmental protection reputation and a slippery slope towards ceding our country’s food security.