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Philippines Approves GMO Rice to Fight Malnutrition

Golden Rice, left, contains beta carotene, the same vitamin A precursor that makes carrots orange. (Credit - IRRI)

A breed of rice genetically engineered to combat vitamin A deficiency has received approval from regulators in the Philippines.

Supporters say "Golden Rice" could remedy a condition that kills up to 250,000 children each year worldwide and blinds twice that number, according to the World Health Organization.

It's the first genetically modified organism (GMO) designed to fight a public health issue to get a green light from food safety officials in the developing world.

Golden Rice has faced vigorous opposition from GMO opponents throughout its development, citing safety concerns and other issues. Protesters destroyed test fields in the Philippines in 2013.

The Philippine Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry announced Wednesday that Golden Rice is as safe as conventional rice. Regulators in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also cleared the grain of safety issues.

After 20 years of development, "it feels absolutely tremendous" to reach this stage, said Adrian Dubock, Executive Secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, the nonprofit working to take the crop from the lab to the field.

Two added genes turn rice golden, one from maize and one from a soil bacterium. Under their direction, rice grains produce beta carotene, the vitamin A precursor that makes carrots and sweet potatoes orange. A third bacterial gene serves as a traceable marker.

In the Philippines, vitamin A deficiency among children has increased from 15.2% in 2008 to 20.4% in 2013, despite a national supplement program, according to the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, which is developing the crop.

Golden Rice could provide up to half of a young child's daily needs, IRRI says.

FILE - Different varieties of rice are seen for sale at a food market in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines, Aug. 31, 2018.
FILE - Different varieties of rice are seen for sale at a food market in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines, Aug. 31, 2018.

Controversial crop

Biotech boosters have presented Golden Rice as one of the best examples of what biotechnology can do, producing plants and animals that benefit humanity faster than conventional breeding can.

Opponents have said the crops raise unknown risks, though the scientific consensus is that GMO varieties on the market today are safe, including Golden Rice.

GMO critics are also wary that the for-profit corporations that have developed GMOs will have undue influence over the seed supply.

Agricultural biotech company Syngenta previously owned key patents for Golden Rice but has donated them to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. Dubock said Golden Rice strains are for use only by public and nonprofit crop breeding programs and would not cost farmers any more than conventional rice.

Dietary solution

Critics say the considerable time, effort and money spent on developing Golden Rice would have been better spent pursuing efforts to diversify the diets of the people who suffer from malnutrition.

"There are very limited funds available for development in third-world countries. It really matters which route you choose to go, where you choose to put your funds," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.

Programs that get more fruits and vegetables into the diets of low-income people would help alleviate several chronic ailments, not just vitamin A deficiency, he noted.

Dubock agrees that "a diversified diet is the best solution," he said. But he added that Golden Rice is a tool that works with how people are already eating.

It's not clear when Philippine farmers will be able to grow Golden Rice. Regulators still have to certify that the crop won't cause problems in farmers' fields. IRRI says it will submit its application early next year.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.