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A world first: Philippines will soon start eating GMO “golden rice”

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

Image credit: Pixabay

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.

GM “golden” rice approved for consumption in the Philippines

In the Philippines, a country of over 100 million people, almost half of the children are suffering from vitamin A deficiencies. This nutrient-rich golden rice has the potential to change all that.

Golden rice is engineered with genes that boost its beta-carotene content, a precursor of vitamin A. Image credits: International Rice Research Institute.

Genetically Modified (GM) foods (sometimes GMO) are still a highly controversial topic. The technology has the potential to revolutionize our food systems, but the public is overwhelmingly against it. However, studies have shown that, if the process is carried out properly, GMO’s offer little reason for concern.

Some places, however, are more receptive than others — and the Phillippines is a good example. GMO corn is already transforming farmers’ lives in the country, as the GMO strain is much more resistant to pests, which would often wreak havoc into plantations.

Now, another emblematic modified crop will enter the stage in Phillippines: rice.

According to a thorough national report, golden rice is just as safe for consumption as regular rice. This comes as no surprise, as several scientific reports had already reached the same conclusion.

“This is a victory for science, agriculture and all Filipinos,” member of congress Sharon Garin said in a statement.

The Philippines is one of several lower-income countries with widespread vitamin A deficiency — a dietary condition that affects the immune system and can cause a series of chronic conditions, including blindness. Every year, this deficiency kills over half a million children worldwide, largely because they don’t consume enough beta-carotene. This problem is particularly prevalent in countries where the local diet greatly relies on rice and features few other legumes.

Golden rice has the potential to make a huge impact here — a single portion carries more than half of the daily requirement, which can make all the difference in the world. But while the prototype was unveiled in 1999, few countries have approved it for mass consumption: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States — all high-income countries with low prevalence of vitamin A deficiency. This lack of wide-scale approval is largely owed to public controversy. Researchers hope that as more and more countries approve this type of crop, the baseless controversy will also be quenched.

The scientific evidence has long shown that golden rice (as well as other GMOs on the market) are safe to plant, process and eat — and more and more governments are starting to understand this. After the Philippines, Bangladesh (a country of 164 million people) is probably next in line.

However, people will have to wait a bit more before they can eat this golden rice. The crop has not yet received the green light for commercial propagation — which is necessary for farmers to plant it in the fields. The International Rice Research Institute, the Philippine-based organization developing the country’s golden rice, plans to submit its application for approval as soon as possible.


‘Golden Rice’ approved in the Philippines after 12 years of anti-GMO protests


Recently, the highly controversial “golden rice” – a genetically modified rice that also contains vitamin A – has been approved in the Philippines after much heated debates and a slew of barrages imposed by anti-GMO organizations. It is believed worldwide 250,000-500,000 children go blind each year, with half of these eventually dying within a year, due to vitamin A deficiency.

Scientists have for years been developing new genetically modified strains of various crops in order to enhance resistance to pests, increase yields, adjust taste and so on. Not all products have been seen well by the general public and there’s a certain scrutiny overlooking anything labeled as GMO. If this is a right philosophy or not to undertake depends a lot on the actual GMO crop and the overseeing governmental authorities.

The genetically modified rice contains enhanced levels of beta carotene, an important source of vitamin A. It first made the news some time in 2000, when Time Magazine featured it in a column highlighting it as the crop that might save the lives of millions of children. Since then, however, the crop’s installment on the fields reached a stalemate that lasted for 12 years; not out of scientific scrutiny, but because of international pressure. A number of anti-GM campaigns, most notably from Greenpeace, has blocked the introduction of golden rice in the farm lands and, consequently, in the homes of people suffering from a vitamin A deficiency. It’s estimated that some eight million children have died in the past 12 years since golden rice has been blocked due to vitamin A deficiency.

Anti-GM organizations have been fighting golden rice for a number of reasons, mostly because golden rice is inadequately described in terms of biological and biochemical makeup, has not been shown to be stable over time and because it initially wasn’t found to be very effective at carrying enough vitamin A. Apparently, in the initial golden rice strains a child had to eat “eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day” to get enough vitamin A. With the new strain, however, according to two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, only 50 grams (roughly two ounces) of golden rice can provide 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. 

Some have argued that vitamin A deficiency can be battled through other methods, like supplementation and fortification. However, the logistic hurdles and the actual costs of such an operation seem rather … idealistic. Imagine, having vitamin A pills, supplements and the likes delivered to hundreds of thousands of people, most of which living in inaccessible rural areas – not going to happen. Supplementation programs costs $4,300 for every life saved in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. On the other hand, golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency, and besides it can be grown by the local community, according to Bjørn Lomborg.

After extensive fields tests by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Institute carried out in 2010 and 2011, golden rice has finally been approved in the Philippines, with Bangladesh and Indonesia soon to follow.

If you have the time, also please read this Forbes report on the subject.