Amid the stream of disappointing news in agriculture, it is nice to report at least one positive development for a change:
The Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) has approved Golden Rice for direct use in food and feed, or for processing, which is a necessary regulatory step towards its full commercialization, bringing us a step closer to eliminating vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamin A deficiency
Undernutrition continues to affect a significant part of our population among the very poor. A 2016 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that the Philippines loses the equivalent of ₱225 billion every year from child mortality, mental underdevelopment and growth defects, and adult work performance deficit due to lack of proper nutrition. And foremost among these nutrition inadequacies is vitamin A deficiency (VAD) which causes blindness and even mortality.
It is not as if we are not trying hard but the promotion of consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A), mandatory fortification of cooking oil with beta-carotene, and oral vitamin A supplementation among vulnerable groups have not been enough because VAD persists as a public health concern.
Since rice is the food most consumed by the poor, the artificial enrichment of rice with beta-carotene by a process called biofortification promises to be an affordable, sustainable and permanent approach to resolving vitamin A deficiency. With rice biofortification, beta-carotene is made available to the consumer at no extra cost nor extra effort because the nutrient comes automatically with the rice people eat three times a day.
Unlike yellow corn which is rich in beta-carotene, the rice grain is virtually devoid of the nutrient. Biofortification of Golden Rice was achieved by transferring to rice the genes for beta-carotene from yellow corn. However, since rice and corn are genetically distant plant species and do not naturally interbreed, the beta-carotene genes had to be transferred by a complicated laboratory procedure called genetic engineering.
However, being a new method, there are concerns that genetic engineering may bring about unwanted, unanticipated side products/effects compared with conventional plant breeding. Hence the regulatory requirement that genetically engineered products be proven as safe as the conventionally developed ones.
Golden rice is as safe
as conventionally-bred rice
Laboratory analyses provided by the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) have shown that all the grain components of Golden Rice, including its minerals and protein contents, are substantially equivalent to ordinary rice. The only exception is Golden Rice grains contain up to 7.31 parts per million of beta-carotene, while ordinary rice virtually has none.
Moreover, the bioconversion efficiency of beta-carotene in Golden Rice compares favorably with other plant sources. Compared with spinach, a vegetable widely recognized as a rich source of vitamin A, the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is converted into vitamin A about five times more efficiently.
The approval by BPI of the food safety of Golden Rice is in fact the fourth favorable endorsement globally by responsible national food regulatory bodies. Similar pronouncements have been declared by: 1) Food Standards Australia New Zealand, 2) Health Canada, and 3) United States Food and Drug Administration.
assessment still underway
While the food safety concerns about Golden Rice had been addressed by this approval by BPI, the other requirement on environment risk assessment is still underway. Field trials were conducted by PhilRice in 2019 in Nueva Ecija and Isabela in full cooperation with the local government units and in the presence of representatives of the regulating agencies (Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Department of Environment and Natural Resources).
The field trials were completed in September 2019 and the data are being processed and analyzed for formal submission to BPI. A certification of satisfactory completion of the field trials will pave the way for the final phase of the regulatory process which is the application for commercial propagation.
I have no doubt that Golden Rice will ultimately pass both the food and environment safety standards. It is just a matter of the proponents, PhilRice and IRRI, completing the requirements and subjecting their material to the mandated regulatory process.
Next steps — farmers
and consumers acceptance
However, the success of the pioneer Golden Rice variety now undergoing tests will ultimately depend on consumers and farmers acceptance.
Unfortunately, Filipino consumers prefer their rice white and polished. They have to be persuaded that the colored, golden grains taste as good and in fact better for their health. Thus even now a vigorous marketing plan should be in place.
It will also help if the palay procurement program of the National Food Authority and the food distribution program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development were to give priority to Golden Rice. Better yet, if Golden Rice were sold at a good discount.
Farmers’ adoption of varieties are conditioned by higher yields, resistance to pests and diseases, adaptation to local conditions and good eating quality. The original recurrent parent of Golden rice, inbred PSBRC 82, is reputed to possess these qualities. Thus, if Golden Rice retains these favorable traits from its parent, it should pass muster. However, that remains yet to be seen.
But in the long run with the beta-carotene genes readily available to the rice breeders, these genes will be routinely incorporated into the inbreds and hybrids of the future.
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a national scientist and also chairman of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email email@example.com