RWANDA – Scientists in Rwanda are advocating for the adoption of genetically modified (GM) banana varieties that exhibit resilience to the devastating Panama disease, a soil-borne fungus a perilous threat to Rwandan banana varieties.

The disease, which has spread across the world, has particularly jeopardized two local banana varieties, Kamaramasenge (a small, sweet banana) and Gros Michel bananas, pushing them to the brink of extinction.

Genetic modification, involving the insertion of DNA into the organism’s genome, is proposed as a viable solution to save these endangered varieties.

The disease, having no cure and affecting all banana types, has forced farmers to cut down entire plantations, with the soil remaining infested for a staggering 35 years.

Pacifique Nshimiyimana, a banana farmer and agricultural scientist at Alliance for Science Rwanda, highlighted the urgency of adopting agricultural biotechnology during a capacity-building workshop for journalists in Musanze District.

He emphasized the critical role of bananas in Rwanda’s agricultural landscape, covering approximately 23 percent of cultivated land.

“The banana crop is among major staple foods in Rwanda that most Rwandans consume every day,” Nshimiyimana stated. “Popular varieties like Kamara and Gros Michel, providing ripe bananas, are on the verge of extinction due to Panama disease. Genetically modified banana varieties could save them from extinction.”

Due to the disease, the prices of the affected banana varieties have surged in the market, exacerbating concerns about their eventual disappearance.

Godelive Akimana, a fruit vendor in Musanze District, highlighted the economic impact, stating, “One small bunch of Karama banana type is Rwf1,000 (USD 0.78) while one ripe banana of Gros Michel banana is between Rwf150 (USD 0.12) and Rwf100 (USD 0.08). Any solution that could save this banana type is needed.”

Australia has already made strides in developing genetically modified banana varieties resistant to Panama disease, marking a potential breakthrough in combating the fungus.

The first genetically modified banana, known as QCAV-4, has been submitted for approval in Australia, presenting a global milestone in GM banana adoption.

A recent survey conducted in Rwanda, Burundi, north-western Tanzania, and eastern DR Congo found high incidence rates of Panama disease in the region, with Tanzania reporting the highest at 63.6 percent.

 Athanase Nduwumuremyi, a senior scientist at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board, underscored the potential of GM crops in addressing food insecurity and malnutrition.

“Urbanization is reducing arable land, and there is optimism that GM crops could be used because the law to use GM crops has been passed by parliament,” Nduwumuremyi explained.

Rwanda, having passed a bill governing GMO crops in December 2023, is finalizing a legal and regulatory framework for the safe use of genetically modified organisms.

Meanwhile, in the realm of banana trade, Rwanda showcased a notable export performance in 2023, with a total export value of USD 85.3k, securing its global standing at 103rd place.

The primary beneficiaries of Rwanda’s banana bounty were international markets, notably the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, and the Netherlands. Among these, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates emerged as the fastest-growing export markets between 2020 and 2021, demonstrating a surge in demand for Rwandan bananas.

The market share for bananas within Rwanda is anticipated to grow steadily, with a forecasted 0.1% year-on-year increase according to Report Linker.

By 2026, the demand is expected to reach a substantial 823,000 metric tons, underlining the enduring popularity of this tropical fruit among the Rwandan populace.

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