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Philippines
FORTIFIED WITH VITAMIN A: RP MAY BE FIRST TO OKAY ‘GOLDEN’ RICE
by Melody M. Aguiba
15-February-2009 Manila Bulletin
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The Philippines may be the first to approve perhaps by 2012 the commercialization of Vitamin A-rich Golden Rice (GR) with multi-locational trials set soon and regulatory procedures in well-advanced stage.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is foreseeing the Philippines’ becoming first in the release of GR with both IRRI and the state-owned Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice) collaborating on this.

"The first approved Golden Rice may be in 2012, according to IRRI, that will likely happen in the Philippines," said International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (ISAAA) Global Coordinator Randy A. Hautea in a press briefing.

IRRI, which is developing the genetically modified (GM) rice for the South East Asian market, has conducted its own field-testing in July last year of its GR variety and may do a second field trial this year, according to ISAAA Senior Program Officer Rhodora R. Aldemita.

Moreover, Philrice is developing its own GR variety that will even have enhanced traits including tungro-resistance and bacterial leaf blight (BLB) resistance.

Since the food crisis last year, Hautea said many companies and human welfare institutions have become aware of the need to support development of crops with important traits.

In the case of golden rice, funding comes from the Harvest Plus, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Association.

Philrice’s development of GR with tungro virus and BLB-resistance is seen to strengthen the GM rice’s commercial prospect. The disease resistance is incorporated by the breeders using conventional breeding rather than genetic engineering.

Dr. Antonio A. Alfonso, PhilRice plant breeder, said that for PHilrice’s part the commercial release of GR in the Philippines may be put off beyond 2011-1012 if the Humanitarian Board and the GR Network decide to use Golden Rice 2, which has the highest level of beta-carotene.

So far, PhilRice has worked on GR1 that has lower betacarotene content than GR2. For the disease resistance, breeders used conventional breeding rather than genetic engineering.

"The targeted release on 2011 or 2012 is not yet final and may have to be modified. We have to obtain additional important data particularly on the stability and bioavailability of betacarotene in the different Golden Rice versions before the final donor will be identified. That will definitely affect the timeline for commercialization," he said.

The GR is eyed to have a yield level similar to other newly-released varieties or at least five metric tons per hectare. PhilRice needs to conduct several seasons of multilocational field trials prior to release of GR. For this variety to get the stamp of approval by the National Seed Industry Council, it should also pass certain standards for grain and eating quality, disease and insect pest resistance and, being a genetically modified organism, biosafety.

Based on initial findings, betacarotene level in GR may fall significantly several weeks after harvest.

"Betacarotene is not stable when exposed to light, and there are enzymatic reactions within the rice grain which lead to degradation of betacarotene," Alfonso said.

Dr. William G. Padolina, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) deputy director general, said IRRI is just stabilizing the backcrossed varieties at IRRI after which GR2 lines will be released to other rice research institutions.

It is estimated that 100 to 140 million children worldwide suffer from Vitamin A Deficiency which is causing blindness, measles, and child mortality.

While certain non-government organizations (NGO) have criticized huge budget allocation for Golden Rice as against the commodity’s value, many believe that fortifying rice with Vitamin A would be an effective and sustainable means to help Vitamin A-deficient rice-eating populations.

"For poor Filipinos, rice with a little amount of salt or a little amount of fish sauce will already make a meal (as no other)," said Dr. Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza of the Institute of Plant Breeding-University of the PHilippines-Los Banos.

IRRI is also fortifying rice varieties with zinc and iron as zinc deficiency in South East Asia is reaching to 71 percent, according to Harvest Plus, while anemia arising from iron deficiency is affecting 57 percent of studied population.

IRRI plant breeders have already exceeded their targeted 24 micrograms per gram zinc content on rice while the target of 14 micrograms er gram target on high iron rice has yet to be hit at the prevent eight ug per g level.

While it is possible to combine biofortified zinc and iron-rich rice with GR, Padolina said no work on this is yet on-going.

Another genetically engineered rice is planned to be released in China . This is resistant to lepidopteran pests.

However, breeders are confident that the bio-fortified rice varieties may likely have stronger acceptability among consumers and farmers.

"We hope ( China will be the first to release a GM rice in Asia ). But we have to be careful to commercialize GM rice because we export rice to other countries. Maybe in China there’s no problem, but there (may be a problem) in the export market," said Zhen Zhu of the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a recent biotechnology forum.

China is ready to commercialize its GM rice if not for the fear certain preparations that it hopes will also ready its export market for the rice.

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