Developed by Philippines’ Department of Agriculture in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute, this rice is just what the doctor ordered: it contains additional levels of beta-carotene, which then the body converts into vitamin A.
"It's a really significant step for our project because it means that we are past this regulatory phase and golden rice will be declared as safe as ordinary rice," Russell Reinke of the International Rice Research Institute told AFP. “The next step is to take out few kilos of seeds and multiply it, so it can be made widely available.”
A new type of rice
Golden rice has a rich history, with researchers from Germany and Switzerland starting to look into it in 1982. Then, in 1999, various groups came together and continued the research, successfully triggering beta carotene production in rice in 1999. An improved version was later produced with Syngenta, with much higher levels of beta carotene. The body converts beta carotene into vitamin A (retinol).
While ordinary rice does produce beta carotene, it’s not found in the grain. Thus, scientists used genetic engineering to add the compound to the grain. The beta carotene is identical to the one found in green leafy and yellow-colored vegetables, orange-colored fruit, and even in many vitamin supplements and food ingredients.
However, GMOs ares not without their critics. If anything, critics outnumber and outpower the supporters.
This new type of rice was harshly questioned by environmental organizations opposed to genetically altered food plants, such as Greenpeace. While it has now passed the final regulatory hurdle, the rice is still far from appearing across Asia. Limited quantities of seed would start being distributed to selected farmers next year.
"The only change that we've made is to produce beta-carotene in the grain," Reinke told AFP, replying to the criticism. "The farmers will be able to grow them in exactly the same way as ordinary varieties. It doesn't need additional fertilizer or changes in management and it carries with it the benefit of improved nutrition."
Why this matters
Vitamin A is one of many nutrients lacking in the diets of many children in Asia. It’s essential for normal growth and development, the proper functioning of the immune system, and vision. Vitamin A deficiency, also known as VAD, can cause blindness and even premature death. An estimated 190 million children worldwide are affected by it.
The vitamin comes directly from animal products and indirectly from beta carotene in plants, which the human body can convert to Vitamin A. As rice is a staple food in many communities in Asia, golden rice could be of significant help in improving these areas’ vitamin A status once the grain becomes available for public consumption.
Still, there are some unanswered questions. In a recent blog post, US researchers Dominic Glover and Glenn Stone said the claim that golden rice will remedy the Vitamin A deficiency remains unproven. Plus, the families that are poor enough to be affected by VAD in the Philippines often lack land to grow rice for themselves.
“The Philippines has managed to cut its childhood VAD rate in half with conventional nutrition programs. If Golden Rice appears on the market in the Philippines by 2022, it will have taken over 30 years of development to create a product that may not affect vitamin levels in its target population, and that farmers may need to be paid to plant,” they wrote.
This could be a turning point for not just the Philippines, but for the rest of the world as well. Many researchers have supported the implementation of some GMO foods such as golden rice, but due to popular opposition, plans haven't really caught on.