The Philippines approves Golden Rice to address Vitamin-A deficiency

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Scientists in Bangladesh sought approval two years ago, but regulators are still jittery

The Philippines on Wednesday gave approval to the Vitamin-A rich Golden Rice for food and feed use.

The approval by the Bureau of Plant Industry, under the country’s Department of Agriculture, is considered a milestone for a 20-year-long research and development initiative of a frontier science technology, where transfer of a gene from maize to rice triggered enormous potential of rice being enriched with beta carotene.

After the rice is consumed, human body converts the beta carotene to Vitamin-A, thereby, addressing a large part of Vitamin-A deficiency (VAD), which is responsible for blindness, particularly among young children. 

The Filipino development came at a time when biosafety regulators in Bangladesh took too long to decide on whether Bangladeshi variety of Golden Rice – GR2E BRRI dhan29 – should be approved or not. 

Bangladesh has long been at the forefront of Golden Rice development, and its scientists — who work in Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and collaborate with the peers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) — developed, successfully field-tested and submitted application for the approval of the Vitamin-A rich variety back in 2017. 

Regulators under the Agriculture Ministry have long passed it for final nod from the biosafety regulators, but the latter under the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry kept on foot-dragging on the issue, thereby failing Bangladeshi scientists’ wonderful feat in rice genetic modification. 

Officials at BRRI and IRRI confirmed Dhaka Tribune on Wednesday that the biosafety committee, responsible for giving such approval of genetically modified (GM) crops, even did not sit for a single meeting since June this year. 

In Bangladesh, 20% pre-school children and 21% school-aged children are deficient of Vitamin-A, while VAD is prevalent among 55% children in urban slums, Dr Ibrahim Md Saiyed, country manager of IRRI Healthier Rice Program, told this correspondent on Wednesday. 

According to the World Health Organization’s global VAD database, one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is Vitamin-A deficient. Among pregnant women, 23.7% suffer from VAD. 

The IRRI says VAD is the main cause of preventable blindness in children, and globally, some 6.7 million children die every year and another 350,000 go blind because they are Vitamin-A deficient. 

Dr Ibrahim said Vitamin-A can be sourced from non-rice food items too, but 20 million people living in extreme poverty in Bangladesh spend up to 75% of their income on rice only. 

As they ill afford dietary diversity, Dr Ibrahim considers Golden Rice a wonderful remedy for VAD among the poor consumers.  

A positive regulatory decision 

Despite the success of public health interventions like oral supplementation, complementary feeding, and nutrition education, VAD among children aged six months to five  years remained as high as 20.4% in the Philippines. 

The beta carotene content of Golden Rice aims to provide 30-50% of the estimated average requirement of Vitamin-A for pregnant women and young children there, according to a release issued by the IRRI on Wednesday.  

Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) Executive Director Dr John de Leon welcomed the positive regulatory decision. “With this FFP [food, feed and processing] approval, we bring forward a very accessible solution to our country’s problem on Vitamin-A deficiency that’s affecting many of our pre-school children and pregnant women.” 

“IRRI is pleased to partner with PhilRice to develop this nutrition-sensitive agricultural solution to address hidden hunger. This is the core of IRRI’s purpose: to tailor global solutions to local needs,” notes IRRI Director General Matthew Morrell. 

To complete the Philippine biosafety regulatory process, Golden Rice will now require approval for commercial propagation before it can be made available to the public. 

The Philippines now joins a select group of countries that have affirmed the safety of Golden Rice. In 2018, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Health Canada, and the United States Food and Drug Administration published positive food safety assessments for Golden Rice.  

IRRI says a biosafety application was lodged in November 2017 in Bangladesh and is still undergoing review. 

In January this year, Agriculture Minister Dr Abdur Razzaque had told media: “A committee of the environment ministry will give clearance to the [Golden] rice for production. We will be able to start cultivation in Bangladesh within two to three months upon getting the clearance.”

IRRI’s Director for Communication and Stakeholder Engagement Tehmina Lalani Shariff told Dhaka Tribune on Wednesday: “We’re still waiting for Bangladeshi regulators to sit for a meeting.” 

Regulators asked for some information for them to reach a decision and BRRI furnished them with all information before June this year, but nothing happened since then, BRRI scientists told this correspondent. 

A brief history of Golden Rice 

Although Bangladeshi rice scientists have been at the forefront of Golden Rice research since the development of this transgenic rice by Swiss and German scientists in 1999, the process gathered momentum only when then IRRI plant biotechnologist, Dr Swapan K Datta, infused the genes responsible for beta carotene into BRRI dhan29 in 2002-03. 

The genetic engineering technology to derive Vitamin-A in rice was first applied by Prof Ingo Potrykus of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Prof Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany back in 1999. All renowned journals and news magazines, including the Nature, the Science and the Time, covered the breakthrough in 2000. 

The first generation Golden Rice, known as GR1, was developed through infusing genes from daffodil, but later the second generation variety, known as GR2, was developed by taking a gene from corn as it gave much better expression of pro-Vitamin-A. 

Some six lines of GR2, scientifically called “events,” were developed and the IRRI chose to work on one called GR2R, which it developed and subsequently infused in Filipino and Bangladeshi rice varieties. 

After years of lab and greenhouse tests on GR2R, the Philippines and Bangladesh eventually halted the process upon an IRRI advice that another line, called the GR2E, would work better. 

Golden Rice co-inventor Prof Peter Beyer told this correspondent that there were some problems with the Event GR2R. He said the new event should work well. And it did. 

The BRRI dhan29, developed by BRRI in 1994, is the most productive dry season rice variety of Bangladesh that has gone beyond national boundaries to be grown in many other countries, including India, China, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Rice does not contain beta carotene. Therefore, dependence on rice as the predominant food source necessarily leads to VAD, most severely affecting small children and pregnant women.

Consumption of only 150 grams of Golden Rice a day is expected to supply half of the recommended daily intake (RDA) of Vitamin-A for an adult. People in Bangladesh depend on rice for 70% of their daily calorie intakes.

In April 2011, the US-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. Further funding was also made available later.

Officials concerned at IRRI and the Gates Foundation said, as the Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice would be of the same price as other rice varieties once released for commercial farming in Bangladesh, and farmers would be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish.