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Rice science’s coming of age

  • Published at 12:27 am April 6th, 2019
Rice science’s coming of age
Top, regular rice and Golden Rice. Right, senior IRRI scientist Norman Oliva explaining Golden Rice features at IRRI headquarters in Los Baños, the Philippines Photos: IRRI

Bangladesh, the Philippines ready Golden Rice to fight Vitamin A deficiency  

Both Bangladesh and the Philippines have readied for release the world’s first Vitamin A enriched rice varieties heralding a new era in fight against Vitamin A deficiency (VAD).

Both these Asian countries with rice being the mainstay of their agrarian economies are waiting for regulatory procedures to be exhausted for a final round of open field trial of Golden Rice, rich with beta carotene. 

Beta carotene, also known as pro-vitamin A, is a substance that the human body can convert to Vitamin A.

Once released, this will be culmination of a long touted partial remedy of VAD.  

According to the World Health Organization's global VAD database, one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is Vitamin A-deficient. Among pregnant women, 23.7% suffer from VAD.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) says VAD is the main cause of preventable blindness in children and globally, some 6.7 million children die every year and another 350,000 go blind because they are vitamin A deficient.

Officials at IRRI, which is headquartered here in the Philippines, told the Dhaka Tribune that Golden Rice regulatory applications are currently under review in Bangladesh and in the Philippines.

IRRI and its national research partners have developed Golden Rice to complement existing interventions to address VAD.  

In the South and Southeast Asian countries, where two-thirds or more of daily caloric intake is obtained from rice, Golden Rice can help in the fight against VAD, particularly among the people who depend mostly on rice for nourishment.

Current status

Golden Rice is a transgenic variety as gene from maize has been infused into rice plant for beta carotene expression. That’s why a biosafety approval is a prerequisite for varietal release in Bangladesh. To complete the biosafety review process, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) lodged an application to the National Technical Committee on Crop Biotechnology (NTCCB) at the Ministry of Agriculture on November 26, 2017. It then forwarded the application to the National Committee on Biosafety (NCB) at the Ministry of Environment on December 4, 2017.

Similarly, in the Philippines, the Philippines Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and IRRI jointly filed an application for review of Golden Rice for direct use in food and feed, or for processing (FFP) to the Bureau of Plant Industry on March 1, 2017.  PhilRice also submitted a separate application for a biosafety permit for the conduct of a field trial, which aims to collect data for further environmental risk assessment.  

Picture of IRRI regular rice, paddy and Golden Rice (from left to right). Picture taken by Reaz Ahmad at IRRI headquarters in Los Baños, the Philippines

Other than the IRRI, BRRI and PhilRice, breeders at the Indonesian Center for Rice Research (ICRR) are also developing Golden Rice versions of existing rice varieties that are popular with their local farmers, retaining the same yield, pest resistance, and grain qualities. 

Golden Rice seeds are expected to cost farmers the same as other rice varieties. Once PhilRice, BRRI, and ICRR are able to secure an approval from their respective regulatory agencies, cooking and taste tests will be done to make sure that Golden Rice meets consumers' needs.

Last year, three of the world’s leading regulatory agencies: Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), Health Canada, and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assessed Golden Rice as safe to plant and safe to eat.

A brief history of Golden Rice

Although Bangladeshi rice scientists have been at the forefront of Golden Rice research since the development of this transgenic rice by Swiss and German scientists in 1999, the process gathered momentum only when then IRRI plant biotechnologist, Dr Swapan K Datta, infused the genes responsible for beta carotene into BRRI dhan29 in 2002-03.

The genetic engineering technology to derive vitamin A in rice was first applied by Prof Ingo Potrykus of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and Prof Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany back in 1999. All renowned journals and news magazines, including the Nature, the Science and the Time, covered the breakthrough in 2000.

The first generation Golden Rice (known as GR1) was developed through infusing genes from daffodil, but later the second generation variety (known as GR2) was developed by taking a gene from corn as it gave much better expression of pro-vitamin A.

Some six lines of GR2 (scientifically called “events”) were developed and the IRRI chose to work on one called GR2R, which it developed and subsequently infused in Filipino and Bangladeshi rice varieties.

After years of lab and greenhouse tests on GR2R, the Philippines and Bangladesh eventually halted the process upon an IRRI advice that another line, called the GR2E, would work better.

Golden Rice co-inventor Prof Peter Beyer told this correspondent that there were some problems with the Event GR2R. He said the new event should work well. And it did. 

The BRRI dhan29, developed by BRRI in 1994, is the most productive dry season rice variety of Bangladesh that has gone beyond national boundaries to be grown in many other countries including India, China, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Rice does not contain beta carotene. Therefore, dependence on rice as the predominant food source necessarily leads to Vitamin A deficiency, most severely affecting small children and pregnant women.

Consumption of only 150 grams of Golden Rice a day is expected to supply half of the recommended daily intake (RDA) of Vitamin A for an adult. People in Bangladesh depend on rice for 70% of their daily calorie intakes.

In April 2011, the US-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. Later further funding was also made available. 

Officials concerned at IRRI and Gates Foundation said as the Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice would be of the same price as other rice varieties once released for commercial farming in Bangladesh, and farmers would be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish.  

BRRI Senior Plant Breeder Dr MA Kader told this reporter that in confined field tests they had measured 10 to 12 μg/g (micrograms/gram) beta carotene in a BRRI dhan29 line genetically converted into Golden Rice. 

BRRI’s Golden Rice Project Director Dr Partha S Biswas said that 10 μg/g beta carotene in GR2E BRRI dhan29 is good enough to meet 50% of Vitamin A needs of people consuming rice in their daily diet. 

IRRI Director General Dr Mathew Morell told the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladeshi and Filipino rice scientists have advanced the beta carotene-rich rice to a stage very close to release.   

What are the next steps?

IRRI is now collecting information to develop strategies to ensure that Golden Rice could reach the farmers and consumers who need it the most. 

Once approved by national regulators and found to be safe and efficacious, IRRI and its partners will work together to introduce Golden Rice as another food-based approach to improve Vitamin A status. A sustainable delivery program will be put in place to ensure that Golden Rice is acceptable and accessible in Vitamin A-deficient communities.

Controversy over Golden Rice

Critics of genetically engineered crops have raised various concerns – ranging from loss of biodiversity to doubt over presence of pro-vitamin, to companies making hefty profits out of seed sales. However, numerous studies have shown that beta carotene is properly expressed in Golden Rice and it gets converted to Vitamin A when consumed as cooked rice. Unlike hybrid rice varieties, the Golden Rice seeds can be retained by farmers for next year’s cultivation and no royalties are applicable as the inventing company Syngenta has already transferred the technology to IRRI as a public good.  

Greenpeace opposes the use of any patented genetically modified organisms in agriculture and opposes the cultivation of Golden Rice, claiming it will open the door to more widespread use of GMOs. In June 2016, as many as 107 Nobel laureates signed a letter urging anti-GMO lobbies to abandon their campaign against Golden Rice.