Vitamin A-Rich Rice Developed to Cure Blindness

After years of development and “rigorous biosafety assessment,” the so-called “Golden Rice” has been approved by the Philippine government for direct use and food and feed. The new strain, which takes its “golden” sobriquet because of its yellowish cast from beta-carotene, is intended to protect up to 200 million people from irreversible blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. It still requires approval for commercial propagation before it can be made available to the public.

Nonetheless, it has been a long, hard battle on the part of the Philippine Rice Institute and the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, which jointly developed the genetically modified strain with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created by the billionaire Microsoft founder.

In 2013, more than 300 farmers and militants whipped into a frenzy over unfounded fears of genetically modified foods stormed a Philippines Department of Agriculture regional office in Bicol, 450 km south of Manila, and stomped out a 1,000 square meter experimental rice field, destroying part of the project and setting it back for months.

Golden Rice “has been found to be as safe as conventional rice" by the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry, according to the IRRI. The project adds three genes found in squash, carrots and melons to allow the rice plants to manufacture their own vitamin A. In the process, it turns the rice yellow.

“With this approval, we bring forward a very accessible solution to our country’s problem on Vitamin A deficiency that’s affecting many of our pre-school children and pregnant women,” said PhilRice Executive Director John de Leon.

Despite public health efforts including oral supplements and feeding and nutrition education, Vitamin A deficiency among children aged 6 months to 5 years increased from 15.2 percent in 2008 to 20.4 percent in 2013 in the Philippines, according to the IRRI. The beta-carotene content of Golden Rice aims to provide 30 to 50 percent of the estimated average requirement (EAR) of vitamin A for pregnant women and young children.

“IRRI is pleased to partner with PhilRice to develop this nutrition-sensitive agricultural solution to address hidden hunger. This is the core of IRRI’s purpose: to tailor global solutions to local needs,” said IRRI Director General Matthew Morrell. “The Philippines has long recognized the potential to harness biotechnology to help address food and nutrition security, environmental safety, as well as improve the livelihoods of farmers.”

In 2018, food standards agencies in Australia and New Zealand, Health Canada, and the United States Food and Drug Administration published positive food safety assessments. A biosafety application was lodged in November 2017 and is currently undergoing review by the Biosafety Core Committee in Bangladesh.

Up to half a million malnourished children go blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, with about half dying within a year of going blind, according to the United Nations Special Session on Children. It also diminishes the ability to fight infections such as measles and may increase risk of developing infections, cut growth, slow bone development and cause other health problems.

Although the Swiss agri-business giant Syngenta produced the original Golden Rice, it was passed to the International Rice Research Institute for free, without royalties. That means there will be no multinationals involved, which require farmers to buy new seeds every year for genetically modified products including corn and cotton. IRRI was established in 1960 with funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations of the US and the Philippine government to produce open-source rice strains and farmers are not charged royalties.

The IRRI became famous in the late 1960s and 1970s for its role in the so-called Green Revolution in Asia via the breeding of dwarf varieties of rice that because of the length of their stems were less prone to falling over during inclement weather. It has been given credit for keeping millions of people from starvation although anti-GMO activists have argued that the dwarf varieties require massive amounts of fertilizers.

"There is nothing unnatural about the process — scientists just figured out how to take a gene from one species and add it to another’s DNA," wrote Michael Purugganan, a Filipino plant geneticist attached to New York University, at the time the activists stomped out the experimental plot. "Plants do this in the wild all the time. It is called horizontal gene transfer, and plants, animals and bacteria have been shown to get many genes from each other as they evolve. Breeders actually do much more radical things to the rice genome and the rice plant by traditional breeding methods, and with much less information about what exactly they are doing to the rice plant’s genes."

IRRI has continued to develop new strains of rice, almost all of them through traditional plant propagation methods. In 2005, it was estimated that 60 percent of the world’s rice area was planted to IRRI-bred rice varieties or their progenies, according to a study by GS Kush and PS Virk of IRRI.

While there have long been concerns that GMO products are unsafe, the Golden Rice project involves a relatively simple genetic splicing of the same kind that created a frost-free potato in 1983, allowing the tubers to endure temperatures eight to 14 degrees F colder than normal strains, saving farmers millions of dollars from crop loss.

Together with its national partners, the Healthier Rice Program at IRRI is working to improve the nutritional status in countries across Asia and Africa, where rice is widely grown and eaten. Delivering essential micronutrients through staple foods like rice offers a sustainable and complementary approach to public health interventions for micronutrient deficiency, which affects 2 billion people worldwide. In addition to Golden Rice, research is being conducted on high iron and zinc rice (HIZR) to help address iron-deficiency anemia and stunting.