Published on August 18, 2021 | Business Mirror
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 retired UPLB professor of plant breeding.
GR is a new, unique variety of rice specially bred to contain 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 it were obtained by genetic engineering from a genetically distant edible relative, yellow corn.
“We had long been waiting for its regulatory clearance,” said Dr. Nina Gloriani, former dean of the College of Public Health, University of the Philippines Manila, and past president of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines.
The permit to cultivate GR 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 prescribed by the Joint Department Circular issued by Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Department of Agriculture, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Health, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
“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 affecting some 190 million children under five years of age worldwide,” said Gloriani.
Gloriani said the Philippines had been “remarkably successful” in combating VAD in recent years. Citing data from the DOST, she said VAD prevalence among children declined to 17 percent, from 40 percent, between 2003 and 2008.
“However, among the poorest fifth of Filipino children, VAD prevalence remains unacceptably high at 26 percent. Moreover, these deficiency numbers have not changed between 2008 and 2018. And therefore, a lot remains yet to be done.”
According to the 2019 EENS survey by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), only two out of 10 Filipino households meet the estimated average equivalent (EAR) for vitamin A. Partial relief could be provided by Golden Rice, the scientists said. “Laboratory and human feeding trials suggest that one cup of cooked GR can provide 30 percent to 42 percent of vitamin A EAR 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 (NAST) and current president of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization of the Philippines, said the development of GR took 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.
Scientists said the new GR varieties must have high yields, 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 GR involved conventional plant breeding methods spanning over many crop generations and years.
Unlike the regular white well-milled rice, the grains of GR are translucent golden yellow in color. When cooked, GR looks very much like the saffron-colored rice in the Spanish paella, which dish many Filipino chefs have adopted as very much part of the country’s cuisine.
Initially, according to rice specialist, Dr. Reynante Ordonio, PhilRice will promote cultivation of GR versions of two registered varieties— PSBRc 82 and NSICRc 283. As the GR beta carotene genes are regularly incorporated in national rice breeding programs, more GR 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 GR had been intended by its inventors as an additional option, not a substitute for existing VAD-elimination programs but a complement to diet diversification, breast feeding, vitamin A supplementation and artificial food fortification of flours, cooking oil, sugar, dairy and other products.