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by Melody M. Aguiba
28-February-2008 Manila Bulletin

The government is set to conduct a multi-locational testing of the genetically modified (GM) pro-Vitamin A-rich rice which should benefit in about three years nutrition-poor, rice-eating rural families.

Dr. Leocadio S. Sebastian, Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) director, said may start in September the first multi-locational field testing of the Vitamin A-rich rice, also known as "Golden Rice," at ’s Muñoz, Nueva Ecija experimental station.

Another site may be at the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) testing fields in Los Baños, Laguna. Each site will have a 500-square meter area.

At least two seasons of testing will be conducted to comply with the requirements of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines’ (NCBP) on the propagation of GM crops.

has transferred to local rice varieties the desired trait, Vitamin A-enrichment through beta-carotene availability, in order to make its nutrition advantages benefit more people. Foreign rice varieties cannot be commercialized viably in the local rice fields.

The trait has been transferred to NSIC 128 and PSB RC 82, two of the most popular rice varieties in the Philippines that are extensively consumed particularly by government’s targeted consumers.

Moreover, the varieties are inbred so that the trait is expected to be passed on to next generation seeds even after repeated planting unlike in expensive hybrid seeds which lose their hybrid vigor or traits after one cropping.

While certain groups contest the value of government’s development of Golden Rice and question its benefits against the huge investment in its development, believes there can be no better alternative to developing a Vitamin A-enrichment in the country’s staple food—rice.

"This has something to do with people’s preference. There are other crops rich in Vitamin A like mungbean and malunggay. But most of the poor eat only the staple. Forty percent of the calorie intake of Filipinos comes from rice," said Sebastian in an interview.

While field testing of the rice variety’s suitability and other agronomic considerations are on-going here, studies on bioavailability of the Vitamin A enrichment are being carried out in other countries. This will determine if Vitamin A from its source, corn into rice, can be made available for use of the human body.

And there are strong possibilities of efficient bioavailibity due to the trait’s origin.

"The gene (carrying the Vitamin A-rich trait) came from yellow corn. There has been trials conducted on this showing high potential for bioavailability," Sebastian said.

The development of Golden Rice has been prompted by the infliction of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) of millions of people in developing countries particularly by children and pregnant women. VAD can lead to total or partial blindness while its less serious form can weaken the immune system.

This raises risks of infection of measles and malaria on immune system-weak people. It was reported that this nutrient deficiency causes blindness on 350,000 pre-school age children yearly and the same deficiency is associated with one million deaths annually.

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