Genetically modified potatoes could address honey crisis – scientists

A Farmer weeding in an Irish potato garden. Use of pesticides in treating potato disease could stop the decline in bee population and help increase honey production. Photo Courtesy

If adopted in Rwanda, genetically modified crops such as irish potatoes that no longer require use of pesticides in treating potato late blight disease could stop the decline in bee population and help increase honey production, scientists have said.

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Late blight, a potentially devastating disease affecting potatoes and tomatoes, infecting leaves, stems, potato tubers and tomato fruits, spreads quickly in fields and can result in total crop failure if untreated.

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A genetically modified potato that is completely resistant to this late blight is a potato that has had its genes modified using genetic engineering by inserting DNA into the genome of an organism. The genetically-modified potato was altered by a gene taken from a variety of potato that grows in the wild.

Rwanda Agriculture and Animals Resources Board (RAB) scientist Athanase Nduwumuremyi said they are gearing up to start “confined trials” of genetically modified irish potatoes in Northern Province in the 2024/25 fiscal year after getting permission from Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA). This follows the move by parliament which, in December 2023, when a law governing genetically modified crops was passed. The law is yet to be promulgated.

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According to farmers, honey production drastically decreased due to pesticides applied in treating the late blight disease which was devastating irish potatoes. According to the International potato Centre (CIP), in East Africa, the disease can destroy as much as 60-100 per cent of the crop and it costs farmers an estimated $3-10 billion per year globally.

In Rwanda, the disease erodes 80 per cent of expected produce if a farmer has no financial capacity to afford required agro-chemicals, according to farmers.

How pesticides reduced honey production

“Diseases and pests that attack crops triggered the use of pesticides which killed so many bees and thus reduced honey production from over 6,000 tonnes officially recorded, to 2,000 tonnes, per year,” said Jean Damascene Ntaganda, the head of the beekeepers’ federation in Rwanda.

In Nyamasheke District, for instance, the bee population decreased to such an extent that the productivity of honey decreased dramatically according to a study dubbed “Agroecology in Rwanda: status, opportunities and challenges” conducted in Gisagara, Rubavu, Gicumbi, Nyamasheke, Musanze, Bugesera, Nyaruguru and Huye Districts.

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The production of honey, in one case, shifted from five tonnes per year down to 0.5 tonnes per year corresponding to a loss of 90 percent of honey production.

The research shows that 17 per cent of households use Cypermethrin pesticide, 19.2 percent use Dithane, 55 percent use Rocket pesticide, 4.6 per cent use Thioda, 2.7 per cent use Ridomil and 1.6 per cent use Beam, all of which contribute to the killing bees.

These pesticides are mainly used for crops such as rice, maize, tomatoes, irish potatoes, eggplants, beans and cabbage, among others.

The current national production of honey is lower compared to a demand of 17,000 tonnes per year.

Rwanda emerged as the 100th largest exporter of honey, globally, with exports worth $0.9 million in 2022.

The global honey market was worth $8.17 billion in 2021 and $8.53 billion in 2022.

“Pesticides are killing bees gradually. There is a need to work on finding solutions to chemical pesticides that are killing bees and reducing honey production,” said Jean de Dieu Kwizera, a beekeeper in Gasabo District.

There are 120,000 beekeepers across the country.

“Government should seek sustainable solutions to diseases affecting tomatoes which require the use of pesticides even twice a week,” said Gloriose Imanishimwe, a farmer in Kirehe District.

Confined trials for GM potatoes in offing

RAB scientist Athanase Nduwumuremyi confirmed that farmers in regions growing tomatoes and irish potatoes are reporting decline in bee population and honey production due to use of pesticides and “therefore GM crops that do not require pesticides are needed”.

“We have got a permit from Rwanda Environment Management Authority to start confined trials for genetically modified irish potatoes. We could start this in the next fiscal year where we will construct facilities to help carry out confined trials.”

He explained that the production of genetically modified crops has different stages and that scientists have approved that GM crops are safe for human consumption contrary to myths which say they have adverse effects.

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The stages include identifying a problem and research idea followed by laboratory tests, confined trials, environment release (release of the GM crops from confined trials), commercial release (release for cultivation) and seed multiplication. “That is why there is a biosafety law which governs use of genetically modified crops,” he said.

Targeting East African potato growing countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, the International Potato Centre’s scientists have bioengineered four locally grown potato varieties with three resistance (3R) genes. These bioengineered potatoes can be cultivated not only in East Africa (Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda) but also in other African countries, such as Ethiopia, and Nigeria, where International Potato Centre intends to test them with national agriculture research partners.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, in May 2023, pollinators such as bees, birds and bats contribute to 35 percent of the world’s total crop production, pollinating 87 of 115 leading food crops worldwide. Most of the 25,000 to 30,000 bee species are effective pollinators.

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The alarming decline of bees and pollinators in many regions can be attributed to a number of factors including improper use of pesticides and habitat loss according to FAO. This implies that if pesticides continue to be used, crop production could drastically decrease.

“GM crops that do not require use of pesticides is one of the solutions,” said agriculture scientist Pacifique Nshimiyimana.


Michel Nkurunziza


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