Farmers in the Philippines might be the first in the world to grow “golden rice,” a short-grained variety genetically modified to contain beta-carotene. It is intended to combat vitamin A deficiency, which is the leading cause of blindness in children worldwide. Half of these children die within a year of losing their sight. First developed over two decades ago, the Philippines is the first and only country to approve golden rice for commercial cultivation, though Bangladesh may soon follow.
Worldwide, over 140 million children are estimated to be vitamin A deficient, according to UNICEF. About 250,000 to 500,000 malnourished children in the developing world go blind each year from the deficiency, and an estimated 670,000 children under age five die annually as a direct result of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which also weakens the immune system.
The Philippines, where around one in five children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, is the country that has really led the research charge for golden rice. The Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has spent two decades working with the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Rice Research Institute to develop golden rice under its Healthier Rice Project. In December 2019, the Philippine government approved the Golden Rice to be used as food, feed, and processing, which allowed for more extensive field trials. On July 23 of this year, the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines approved the commercial use of golden rice.
Golden rice was developed by a pair of Swiss university researchers in 1999 that hoped to combat the devastating effects of VAD. They chose rice because it is a staple food for nearly half of the world’s population, including 90% of Asia. However, it also has a very low nutrient content. In Bangladesh, China, India, and elsewhere in Asia, many children subsist on a few bowls of rice a day and almost nothing else, according to UNICEF.
Many experts have long believed that adding micronutrients to low-cost staple crops, known as biofortification, is one of the most effective tools in combating malnutrition. It is estimated that at least 3.1 million children die each year and 161 million have stunted growth due to malnutrition. The problem is not only that food is scarce, but also that the food they consume does not have the vitamins and minerals they need, something referred to as “hidden hunger.” Deficiencies in iron, iodine, zinc, folic acid, and vitamin A are among the most common.
Golden rice is genetically engineered to provide up to 50% of the estimated average requirement for vitamin A of young children. The presence of beta carotene, the source of Vitamin A, gives the rice its golden yellow color. Conventional rice plants already contained beta carotene, but only in their leaves and stems, not in the kernels. Golden Rice by contrast also carries the substance in the part of the plant that people eat. Scientific details of the rice were first published in 2000 and at the time, it was considered a significant breakthrough in biotechnology, as the researchers had engineered the world’s first biofortified crop.
Despite the life-saving potential of golden rice, however, it has met with significant pushback from various activist groups, most vocally Greenpeace. That opposition is widely blamed for blocking the introduction of golden rice into the countries that could benefit most. Amid the fear-mongering, it’s also become the victim of numerous false rumors, including that its beta-carotene would break down into cancer-causing chemicals, so gaining public trust has also been a struggle. Greenpeace is again raising a stink over the Philippine’s recent approval of golden rice as well as running anti-golden rice campaigns in Bangladesh, where the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) is reviewing an application for the crop’s biosafety approval.
Several steps still need to be taken before Filipino farmers can begin planting golden rice, including varietal registration by the National Seed Industry Council (NSIC) and increasing the volume of available seed. In keeping with its designation as a humanitarian crop, the vitamin A-enriched rice will be deployed in partnership with appropriate agencies through market-based and programmatic approaches, including feeding programs in areas where the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is high. The Healthier Rice Program is also working on higher iron and zinc rice (HIZR) to address the hidden hunger of multiple micronutrient deficiencies. The goal is to release a stacked variety containing beta-carotene, iron and zinc.(Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, ISAAA, World Grain)