Golden rice, enriched with vitamin A and designed to end suffering among the world’s poorest children, has been approved in the Philippines.

Similar crops now in the pipeline could soon join golden rice, to address problems in other developing nations around the world.

Key points:

  • Golden rice is designed to reduce vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, especially Asia
  • Biofortification could help ease suffering among the world’s poor
  • Some are sceptical, citing the long lead time for such research programs

PhilRice, the research institute tasked with rolling out golden rice to the Filipino market says pilot scale plots will be farmed first to boost seed supply in areas with deficiencies, before rice is available for sale in 2023.

Funded by millions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists began genetically engineering rice to contain beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A early this century.

The process is known as biofortification and aims to incorporate micro nutrients critical for human health in common staple foods.

About 190 million children are estimated to suffer from a deficiency of vitamin A which can lead to blindness, weakened immune systems and death.

Director General of International Rice Research Institute Jean Balié said the world-first approval represented a major shift in fixing global malnutrition.

“This milestone puts the Philippines at the global forefront in leveraging agriculture research to address the issues of malnutrition and related health impacts in a safe and sustainable way,” he said.

Professor James Dale in his Brisbane lab with a the genetically modified banana.

Distinguished Professor James Dale says news that golden rice is gaining acceptance among regulators bodes well for future biofortified foods.(

Supplied: QUT

)

Australian scientist heralds success

James Dale has been at the forefront of Australian plant biotechnology for decades and serves as a distinguished professor at Brisbane’s QUT.

Dr Dale heralded the announcement as exciting for the industry and said it had implications for his project to bioengineer bananas to improve vitamin A levels in sub-Saharan Africa.

A sister project to Dr Dale’s biofortified banana, the team met with the Australian researchers biannually for a decade as both projects developed.

One of five different micronutrient deficiencies, vitamin A and iron deficiency anaemia are the biggest problems for the developing world according to Dr Dale.

“Golden rice has been ready to go for a long time now and the real hold up has been regulatory approval for farmers to grow the crop,” he said.

Dr Dale said his biofortified banana which began development in Far North Queensland, was in the late stages of testing through authorities in Uganda, to modify local staple banana varieties for high levels of vitamin A.

“We’re in field trials in Uganda and these are our final field trials, we’ve got our best lines in the field now and are putting together the final data around levels of vitamin A we’re getting,” he said.

map of vitamin a deficiency

It’s estimated as many as a third of the world’s vitamin A deficient children do not receive supplementation programs.(

Supplied: UNICEF

)

Concerns raised on viability

But the concept of biofortification strategies for alleviating malnutrition has its sceptics.

The Philippines was the site of active opposition to the genetically modified rice, with a trial crop deliberately destroyed in 2013.

While much anti-GM activism has declined, there could be other problems with biofortified crops according to researcher with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Dominic Glover.

“People in international development studies dread the ‘silver bullet’ technical solution for problems that have roots in complex market forces that are keeping people poor,” he said.

Dr Glover said the costs and benefits of biofortification needed to be analysed, given the extended time it took for the first approvals of golden rice.

“It’s not that biofortification is a bad thing to do but there’s an opportunity cost,” he said.

“If you’re investing in golden rice instead of other approaches to address micronutrient deficiencies, these kinds of trade-offs need to be assessed in a cool, evidence-based way.”

scientist examines golden rice heads

Developers say golden rice can form part of the solution to vitamin A deficiencies in parts of Africa, Asia and South America.(

David Greedy/Getty Images

)

While the approved golden rice varieties PSBRc 82 and NSICRc 283 are known to grow in the Philippines under their non-GM form, questions remain about on-farm adoption.

“RC82 is quite an old variety that’s declined in popularity and I’m not sure the golden trait is going to repopularise that variety,” Dr Glover said.

Biofortified bananas promised soon

The pandemic’s disruption to research travel has slowed development of the biofortified banana, but researchers are hoping to return to Uganda in 2022.

“COVID-19 has caused major problems in Uganda now, that disrupts the collection of samples around the country and processing,” Dr Dale said.

The golden banana developers hope approvals will be granted by the end of next year at the conclusion of the final field trials and data analysis.

Can golden rice prove agricultural science has a role in ending malnutrition?
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