RWANDA – Rwanda has unveiled plans of testing a newly developed Genetically Modified (GM) potato variety that is expected to significantly increase yields, reports New Times Rwanda.

Developed by the International Potato Centre (CIP), the Victoria variety is expected to cushion farmers against losses associated with the late blight disease.

The fungal potato disease is estimated to cost developing countries an estimated US$10 billion in lost revenues through reduced yields.

According to Dr. Patrick Karangwa, the Director General of Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), the potato variety has proven to be resistant to late blight.

“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,” Dr Karangwa said during the recently held African Potato Association (APA) conference in Kigali.

Eric Magembe, CIP’s Sub-Saharan Africa Molecular Biologist, noted 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.

While addressing concerns about the quality of the new variety, Magembe said, “the flavor, taste, as well as proteins are the same compared to the original variety” with the only variation being resistance to the disease.

In the past, Genetically Modified foods attracted intense public scrutiny in Rwanda largely due to the controversy around GM technology.

The country has, however, made bold steps in embracing genetically modified foods and has enacted a law governing genetically modified organisms.

Although not yet passed, the law provides a legal framework necessary for the development of GM foods in the country.

Dr. Patrick Karangwa noted that RAB is in talks with Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) to expedite the law.

“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,” he said.

The adoption of GM Irish potato varieties will see Rwanda join other countries such as India, the United States and Pakistan which are already producing GM foods.

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. Commercialization of the GM variety is therefore expected to have a tremendous impact in the country’s agricultural sector.

The ministry of agriculture in collaboration with other institutions is also planning to embark on a research oriented towards genetically modified organisms for development.