Regulators in Bangladesh remain jittery over approval decision for 4 years
The Philippines on Friday approved commercial cultivation of vitamin A-rich Golden Rice, long touted as a partial remedy for childhood malnutrition.
It comes at a time when scientists in Bangladesh expressed deep frustration over regulators’ delay in approving the variety in the country for nearly four years.
Now, Filipino farmers will become the first in the world to be able to cultivate Golden Rice, a daily consumption of which can potentially reduce childhood malnutrition prevalent in the Philippines as well as in Bangladesh.
The Filipino variety of Golden Rice was developed by the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to contain additional levels of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A.
According to the World Health Organization's global vitamin A deficiency (VAD) database, one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is deficient of this key vitamin. Among pregnant women, 23.7% suffer from VAD. Globally VAD affects an estimated 190 million children, a major cause of childhood blindness.
According to IRRI, Golden Rice is genetically engineered to provide up to 50% of the estimated average requirement for vitamin A of young children, the age group most susceptible to VAD.
Regulators failing Bangladeshi scientists’ fight against VAD
Scientists in both Bangladesh and the Philippines advanced their respective Golden Rice varieties pretty much around the same time but while the regulators in the Philippines routinely processed and fast-tracked the variety approvals, their peers in Bangladesh have long been sitting on the approval process.
Scientists involved with Golden Rice development at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) told Dhaka Tribune that since their submission of petition seeking the approval in 2017, there were a few meetings by the country’s biosafety authorities.
“They asked for relevant data, trial results etc. and we furnished them with all documents and proof and efficacy of the breed but the regulators remained nonchalant after all these years,” said a BRRI scientist who asked not to be named.
Neither the regulators denied the importance of the Golden Rice nor, they showed any reason for such foot-dragging, according to the BRRI official.
In the Philippines, the anti-GMO (genetically-modified organisms) even destroyed some of the trial fields of Golden Rice but that never stopped the country’s biosafety regulators in coming to a scientific conclusion giving a final go-ahead on Friday.
In Bangladesh, there has been no such opposition but, scientists blamed anti-biotech lobby within the environment ministry that preside over the biosafety regulations, for not approving Golden Rice so far in the country.
In fact, Bangladesh was the first country in South Asia to release a GM food product – Bt brinjal – in 2014 with then agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury spearheading the move. In recent months she, in her capacity as head of the parliamentary committee on agriculture ministry, has inquired several times to know what delaying the approval process of Golden Rice.
IRRI, BRRI happy with the Filipino move
Congratulating PhilRice, BRRI Director General Md. Shahjahan Kabir, said: “The approval for commercial propagation of Golden Rice in the Philippines is a major milestone in the fight against vitamin A deficiency not just in the Philippines, but in Bangladesh as well.”
“The application for the biosafety approval of Golden Rice in Bangladesh has been pending with the Ministry of Environment. I strongly believe that the Bangladesh government will follow in the footsteps of the Philippines and clear the way for Golden Rice, which has been conceived as a sustainable, cost-effective solution for vitamin A deficiency in Bangladesh alongside other ongoing interventions,” said the BRRI chief.
IRRI Director General, Jean Balié, said: “This milestone puts the Philippines at the global forefront in leveraging agriculture research to address the issues of malnutrition and related health impacts in a safe and sustainable way.”
“The regulatory success of Golden Rice demonstrates the research leadership of DA-PhilRice and the robustness of the Philippine biosafety regulatory system.”
DA-PhilRice Executive Director, John de Leon, said: “We are committed to ensuring the highest quality of seed for farmers and a safe and nutritious food supply for all Filipinos.”
Golden Rice has already received food safety approvals from regulators in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States of America but the Philippines is the first country to approve commercial cultivation.
A brief history of Golden Rice
Although Bangladeshi 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 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 Professor Ingo Potrykus of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and Professor 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 Professor 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.