First-of-its-kind Golden Rice to save 190 million children from risks of Vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, diarrhea, measles, night blindness

August 15, 2021

The recent government approval for the commercial cultivation of Golden Rice (GR) is a most welcome, long-awaited development for the science community, according to National Scientist Emil Q. Javier and Institute of Plant Breeding founder.

   GR is a new unique variety of rice specially bred that contains beta carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, an essential nutrient which humans cannot synthesize on their own, and therefore cannot live without.

   This rice variety is first of its kind in the scientific world because the genes for beta carotene bred into Golden Rice were obtained by genetic engineering.  The beta carotene genes come from a genetically distant edible relative, yellow corn.

   “We had been long waiting for Golden Rice’s regulatory clearance,” according to Dr. Nina Gloriani, former dean of the College of Public Health, UP Manila.

    The permit to cultivate Golden Rice was finally granted by the Bureau of Plant Industry after the proponent, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), complied with the lengthy, rigorous food safety and environment regulatory requirements.

   This rigorous regulation was prescribed by the Joint Department Circular issued by Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR),Department of Health (DOH),  and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG).

   Lack of vitamin A predisposes people, especially children, to increased risk to respiratory diseases, diarrhea, measles, night blindness, and can lead to death. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) continues to be a major nutrition and public health concern in low- and middle-income countries, including the Philippines.

   It affects some 190 million children under five years of age worldwide.

   Further, Dr. Gloriani called out that the Philippines had been remarkably successful in combating VAD in recent years.

   Between 2003 and 2008, we have brought down VAD prevalence among children from 40% down to 17% (DOST-FNRI, 2021). However, among the poorest fifth of Filipino children, VAD prevalence remains unacceptably high at 26%.

   Moreover, these deficiency numbers have not changed between 2008 and 2018. And therefore, a lot remains yet to be done.

   According to the 2019 national nutrition survey by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI-DOST), only two out of 10 Filipino households meet the estimated average equivalent for Vitamin A. 

   Partial relief could be provided by Golden Rice.

   Laboratory and human feeding trials suggest that one cup of cooked Golden Rice can provide 30–42% of Vitamin A estimated average equivalent for pre-school children.

   Since the beta carotene is naturally embedded in the GR grain, the needed essential nutrient comes at no additional cost and effort to the consumer, a significant benefit to poor households.

   Dr. Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., chairman of the Agriculture Sciences Division of the National Academy of Science and Technology, said the development of Golden Rice took very long (over 20 years) because the beta carotene genes from yellow corn had to be meticulously transferred into popular rice varieties acceptable to farmers.

   Otherwise, the farmers will not plant them.   The new Golden Rice varieties must have high yield, resistant to pests and diseases, suited to a wide range of growing conditions and with superior eating quality.

The conversion of regular rice varieties into Golden Rice involved conventional plant breeding methods spanning over many crop generations and years.

   Unlike the regular white well-milled rice, the grains of Golden Rice are translucent golden yellow in color.

   When cooked, Golden Rice looks very much like the saffron-colored rice in the Spanish paella, a dish many Filipino chefs have adopted as very much part of the Filipino cuisine.

   Initially, according to rice specialist, Dr. Reynante Ordonio, PhilRice will promote cultivation of Golden Rice versions of two registered varieties — PSBRc 82 and NSICRc 283.

   As the Golden Rice beta carotene genes are regularly incorporated in national rice breeding programs, more Golden Rice  inbreds and hybrids are expected to be released in the future not only in the Philippines but also in  parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America where VAD is rife and where rice is the major staple.

    Finally, National Scientist Javier clarified that all along Golden Rice had been intended by its inventors as an additional option.  It should not be a substitute for existing VAD-elimination programs.  But it should be a complement to diet diversification, breast feeding, vitamin A supplementation and artificial food fortification of flours, cooking oil, sugar, dairy and other products.

   With Golden Rice, a naturally bio-fortified no-additional-cost option now available to consumers, a multipronged long-term sustainable solution to the scourge of vitamin a deficiency in many parts of the developing world is in sight.

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