Potato growers have welcomed the government’s ongoing trials of using agricultural biotechnology to produce a new Irish potato variety resistant to the devastating late blight disease.
If successful, Doing Business learned that farmers can grow the new potato variety without necessarily using agrochemicals.
Late blight, a potentially devastating disease affecting potatoes and tomatoes, infecting leaves, stems, potato tubers and tomato fruit, spreads rapidly through fields and can lead to total crop loss if left untreated.
According to the International Potato Center (CIP), in East Africa the disease can destroy up to 60-100% of the crop.
CIP scientists working with Rwanda are using bioengineering to transfer resistance genes from wild potato parents to varieties already popular with farmers and consumers to fight the disease.
Athanase Nduwumuremyi, senior researcher at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Development Board (RAB) told reporters on July 12 that late blight resistant potato variety is being developed using agricultural biotechnology.
Agricultural biotechnology is a range of tools including genetic engineering that modifies living organisms to improve plants or animals.
“The new potato variety is resistant to late blight and will eliminate the use of agrochemicals,” Nduwumuremyi said.
Potatoes cover 3.9% of the country’s total cultivated area. Irish potatoes are the third most popular food crop in Rwanda. However, the average potato productivity is 10 tons per hectare, which is low compared to the yield potential of over 30 tons.
The new potato variety, Nduwumuremyi said, could also increase productivity. Rwanda plans to increase potato yield per hectare from 13.5 tonnes in 2021 to 14 tonnes in 2024.
Cultivated on 106,236 hectares across the country, the expected production is expected to increase from 1,194,677 tons in 2021 to 1,487,304 tons in 2024, according to the strategic plan for the agricultural sector.
The agronomist said that the use of the new potato variety will comply with the biosafety law.
“The Biosafety Law contains all the guidelines although it has not yet been adopted. The bill is in the Prime Minister’s office after being introduced by the Law Reform Commission. What we’re doing now is getting approval based on the general research law.
“Before the new variety is made available to farmers, a biosecurity law will be in place. Otherwise, there will be ministerial orders or directives and the Food and Drugs Authority will check whether the variety meets the standards as food and seed,” he said.
He estimates that according to the research roadmap, by 2025 the new variety will be ready for distribution to farmers.
“It won’t take too long to reach the farmers if the process is speeded up,” Nduwumuremyi said.
What farmers expect
Farmers counting losses from late blight welcome the plan to use agricultural biotechnology to develop a resistant crop variety.
“The disease erodes 80% of expected production if a farmer does not have the financial capacity to purchase the necessary agrochemicals. This affects the harvest during rainy seasons which are also potato growing seasons,” Apollinaire Karegeya, a farmer from Musanze district, told Doing Business.
Karegeya grows Irish potatoes on around 15 hectares each season.
He said that once the disease-resistant variety is ready, it could reduce the huge costs incurred for agrochemicals and compensation for workers doing the work.
“We have to use agrochemicals eight times in two months,” he said.
Karegeya spends Rwf 3.6 million on agrochemicals to control the disease every season.
“One hectare requires three kilos of agrochemicals. Each kilo costs Frw 5,000 and we spray twice a week.
The farmer uses Frw 30,000 per hectare or Frw 450,000 on his 15 hectares, every week.
“We hope that the agricultural biotechnology the government is talking about can save us from the losses and costs incurred on agrochemicals because smallholder farmers simply cannot handle such losses,” he said.
According to Jean Marie Vianney Nteziyaremye, a member of an Irish potato growers cooperative in Kabatwa sector, Nyabihu district, a farmer spends Rwf 120,000 on agrochemicals per season to spray crops on 2,000 square meters of agricultural land.
“During the rainy season, we spray the agrochemical Dithane. You have to spray twice a week, which is done in the first two and a half months before the crops reach four months of maturity,” he said.
This, he said, requires spraying more than 16 times, which is exorbitant.
According to Florence Uwamahoro, the researcher who conducted a survey in 10 districts, late blight was reported by up to 73% of the farmers surveyed.
Creation of a forum on agricultural biotechnology
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and RAB recently launched the Rwanda chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB). It aims to improve awareness and knowledge sharing on innovative agricultural technologies to increase production, Mistake! Invalid hyperlink reference. in the country.
The platform is present in seven other countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania.
Africa’s food import bill has risen from $35 billion in 2015 to $49 billion in 2019. Scientists say there is a need for local scientists’ innovations in agricultural biotechnology to help reduce the import bill food.