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Golden Rice battles blindness
by Joel C. Paredes (Special to the Business Mirror)
13- August-2011 Business Mirror
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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 [VAD].”

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 varieties.

“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,” he claimed.

According to Alfonso, they have finally identified the Golden Rice breeding line which can produce up to 37 micrograms per gram.

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 and diseases.

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 mortality.

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 the Institute 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 Network.

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 the Department 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.

Under DA 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 animal health.”

The Department 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.

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