AS someone who spends long,
unpredictable hours in developing Golden
Rice, scientist Dr. Antonio Alfonso has been described
by his colleagues at the Philippine
Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) as “Mr. Patient.”
Alfonso was tapped as early as 2004 to lead a research
team that will develop the world’s first vitamin A-fortified,
genetically modified (GM) rice variety.
The bespectacled, soft-spoken scientist was designated
to lead the project as soon as he had finished his doctorate
in plant molecular biology from Cornell University as a
Rockefeller Foundation scholar.
It was a project hardly welcomed by cynics. Greenpeace
even issued a statement, saying, “It is one of the most
ecologically dangerous ways to address vitamin A deficiency
The international environment group went as far as to suggest
the money being spent in fighting VAD should just be channeled
in promoting home gardening and pills.
Alfonso admits he understands the critics’ concerns, and
this is the reason the development of GM crops faces stringent
regulations, and takes more time than traditional and conventional
“It’s not really a quick process because we have to address
every concern on the Golden Rice,” he said. “But I understand
the problem and I know the magnitude of vitamin A deficiency
and its ill effects. Being a breeder, I know that I am able
to contribute in developing Golden Rice as an additional
strategy to help in addressing the problem.”
Seven years later, Alfonso, now PhilRice’s chief science
research specialist, said he and his team at the PhilRice
headquarters in the Science City of Muñoz are now more confident
than ever that they can prove their critics wrong.
“From the nutritional perspective, we now have data generated
by our American collaborators indicating that Golden Rice
is a good material to address vitamin A deficiency based
on how much Golden Rice is needed to meet our daily requirement.
Before, they said that because of the low level of beta-carotene,
you need to eat a lot of Golden Rice. That’s no longer true,”
According to Alfonso, they have finally identified the
Golden Rice breeding line which can produce up to 37 micrograms
As he puts it, “Now, just about a cup or around 150 grams
of uncooked rice could supply 50 percent of the required
daily allowance [RDA] of vitamin A for an adult.”
Golden Rice is unique because it contains beta-carotene,
which gives it a golden color—that’s why the name. Vitamin
A—or beta-carotene—is an essential nutrient needed for the
visual system, growth, development and healthy immune system.
Right now, vitamin A can be found only in animal products
and breast milk. Carotenoids, substances like beta-carotene
that the body converts into vitamin A, are found in orange-colored
fruits and vegetables and in dark-green leafy vegetables.
Alfonso disclosed that he and his colleagues have also
finalized as their donor event the popular local variety
PSBRC82, which will be given the Golden Rice strain. PSBRC82
is not only considered a high-yielding variety, but it has
become popular to consumers for its good eating quality.
PhilRice also found that its agronomic traits were widely
accepted by local farmers since it is resistant to pests
The research agency has closed ranks with nutrition and
agricultural research organizations in developing and evaluating
Golden Rice as a potential tool to reduce vitamin A deficiency
in the Philippines and Bangladesh.
Also involved in the research are Helen
Keller International (HKI), the Bangladesh
Rice Research Institute and the International
Rice Research Institute, the Los Baños-based international
nonprofit rice research and training organization, the largest
in the world.
Their work includes establishing the safety of Golden Rice,
evaluating whether its consumption will improve vitamin
A levels and find out how it could be part of the diet,
especially for those who are prone to VAD.
Vitamin A deficiency: A serious public-health problem
In the Philippines, the Food
and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) said the highest
prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is found among infants,
young children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
Fifteen percent of children between six months and five
years are vitamin A-deficient. Among pregnant women and
lactating mothers, the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency
is 9.5 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively.
Vitamin A deficiency can damage the immune system and decrease
the body’s ability to resist or fight infections, thus,
increase the risk of mortality from common diseases, especially
among young children.
Globally, about 670,000 children reportedly die annually
for being vitamin A-deficient. It is also the leading cause
of blindness among children, with 350,000 children losing
their sight every year.
In Southeast Asia alone, the World
Health Organisation found that 90 million children suffer
from vitamin A deficiency, more than in any other region.
Vitamin A deficiency among pregnant and nursing mothers
can cause night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal
The poor in the Philippines and other developing countries
who live primarily on a diet of starchy staples, such as
rice, which lack micronutrients like vitamin A, are particularly
vulnerable to VAD.
Since rice is widely produced and consumed, Golden Rice
has the potential to reach many people, including those
who do not have access to or cannot afford other sources
of vitamin A.
Once commercialized, Golden Rice is intended to be used
in combination with existing approaches to overcome vitamin
A deficiency, including eating food that contain higher
levels of vitamin along with optimal breast-feeding practices.
HKI, a leading global organization that has been instrumental
in helping reduce vitamin A deficiency, has already led
previous initiatives to fortify commonly used food items
and even cooking oil with vitamin A. It engages in social
marketing to encourage the consumption of these items.
Enriching food products with vitamin A has been found to
be cost-effective and a long-term means to address the deficiency.
Evaluating the Golden Rice
Golden Rice was developed using genetic-modification techniques
with genes from maize and a common soil microorganism that
together produce beta-carotene in the rice grain.
Actually, rice plants accumulate beta-carotene in their
leaves but not in the grain.
Through modern biotechnology, two carotenoid genes—phytoene
synthase and phytoene desaturase—were added to the rice
plants allowing beta-carotene to accumulate in the endosperm,
the edible part of the grain.
The technology involved in developing Golden Rice is considered
free because its inventors—Prof. Ingo Potrykus, then of
for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology;
and Prof. Peter Beyer of the University
of Freiburg in Germany, along with Syngenta,
which has been given the exclusive right to the technology
by the inventors, had already released all intellectual
property rights (IPR) to the public through the Golden Rice
Since 2000, scientific research and international collaboration
on Golden Rice have been supported by funding and assistance
in kind from private, public and philanthropic sectors.
For the Philippines and Bangladesh, the Golden Rice project
has generated support from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided a grant,
and funding from the Rockefeller
Foundation and the US
Agency for International Development.
Their target, Alfonso pointed out, is “to produce from
PhilRice variety with high standards and at a cost on a
par with other rice strains.”
He also assured that “cooking and taste tests will help
make sure that these qualities of Golden Rice would match
the consumers’ expectations.”
Alfonso said to help establish the safety of the Golden
Rice to the environment, they would conduct field testing
and other evaluations in both the Philippines and Bangladesh.
The field trials will show if Golden Rice grows in the
same manner as other rice strains do under local conditions.
These tests will also generate the needed information that
of Agriculture (DA) can use in assessing the safety
of Golden Rice.
Golden Rice is also being analyzed based on internationally
accepted guidelines for the use of modern biotechnology.
Administrative Order 8, no regulated article like Golden
Rice can be released unless there is a permit for propagation
secured from the Bureau
of Plant Industry (BPI). It requires that based on field
testing conducted in the Philippines, the regulated article
“will not post any significant risk to the environment.
It must not also pose any significant risk to human and
of Science and Technology-Biosafety Committee is providing
the regulatory oversight to the research under contained
conditions, while the BPI of the DA will strictly monitor
the field trials.
Alfonso said PhilRice is expected to submit all safety
information to the BPI being the country’s regulatory agency,
as early as 2013.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, is expected to present the
results two years later.
Regulators will review the data as part of the approval
process for Golden Rice before it is released to farmers.
But once the safety of the Golden Rice is confirmed, the
HKI will assess whether it improves vitamin A status.
A study is to be undertaken to initially assess how daily
consumption of the Golden Rice could improve the vitamin
A status of adults under controlled community conditions.
Under HKI’s leadership, the partners will also design a
test delivery program to ensure that Golden Rice researchers,
farmers and consumers will benefit, especially those who
need it most.
Alfonso said they are also confident that they just need
to associate the Golden Rice’s color with nutrition.
“Golden Rice is yellow because it has beta-carotene, meaning
it’s more nutritious. But it’s not also entirely true that
we are not used to eating yellow rice. In fact, we enjoy
rice with margarine, along with the paella,” he said.