The recent approval of the commercial growing of Golden Rice (GR) based on guidelines set by a 5-interdepartmental circular is a most welcome, most awaited development.
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) continues to be one of the leading nutrition and public health problems in the developing world, affecting 190 million worldwide including Filipino children and lactating mothers. The 2019 Expanded National Nutrition Survey (ENNS) of the Department of Science and technology-Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI) shows that 1 in 4 children from the poorest communities continue to suffer from VAD, which can contribute to a weakened immune system, more frequent childhood illnesses, and is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness.
Despite successes in Vitamin A supplementation and fortification efforts, this public health concern persists due to the chronic insufficiency of key micronutrients in the average Filipino diet. According to 2019 ENNS data, only 2 out of 10 households meet the estimated average requirement (EAR) of Vitamin A in their daily diet. This trend is particularly worrying, given the rising rates of food insecurity that arose as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic: the September 2020 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey records the highest self-reported incidence of hunger in twenty years, at 30.7%. We have yet to experience the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nutritional status, but to safeguard whatever nutritional gains we have achieved, it is imperative that all potential interventions must be utilized.
Since the beta-carotene is naturally embedded in the Golden Rice grain, the needed nutrient comes at no additional cost and effort to the consumer, a significant benefit to poor households.
Laboratory and human feeding studies suggest that if consumed at usual rates, GR can supply as much as 42% of the EAR for Vitamin A. Beta-carotene is only converted into Vitamin A by the human body as needed, which means that overdosing is not a concern. Moreover, studies show that staple crops and other foods with simple food matrices have a more efficient bioconversion rate than fruit or vegetable sources of beta-carotene. In the case of Golden Rice, its bioconversion rate of 3.8:1 means that the human body only needs 3.8 micrograms (µg) of beta-carotene from Golden Rice to convert into 1 µg RAE (Vitamin A). This is roughly equivalent to one cup of cooked Golden Rice to provide 30-42% EAR of Vitamin A for pre-school children.
Now is the time to demonstrate this benefit on a community scale. DA-PhilRice, the lead proponent of Golden Rice in the Philippines, is working on identifying the appropriate market-based and program-based approaches to ensure that Golden Rice first reaches the communities who need it the most. A nutritional impact study will also be conducted by an external organization with expertise in public health.
The development of Golden Rice took over 20 years because the genes for beta carotene which were obtained from yellow corn had to be bred into popular varieties that are well known to farmers; varieties with acceptable and consistent good agronomic field performance such as high yields, resistance to pests and diseases, and good eating quality. Proponents wanted to ensure that the Golden Rice variety that would be released in the market met farmer and consumer needs.
Now that the biosafety permit for the commercial propagation of Golden Rice has been issued, the next important steps include varietal registration and seed increase. Golden Rice will be initially deployed in selected areas where the need is greatest. These early experiences with Golden Rice will provide important knowledge as we further scale up production.
To ensure the highest quality of seed for farmers and a safe and nutritious food supply for all Filipinos, there will be a comprehensive quality assurance and stewardship program that covers all steps in the chain from seed production, to post-harvest processing, to marketing.
Unlike the regular white well-milled rice, as the name implies, the grains of Golden Rice are golden yellow in color. When cooked, the rice looks very much like the saffron-colored rice in the Spanish paella, which dish many Filipino chefs have adopted as very much part of our cuisine.
The stable beta carotene genes can now be incorporated in a range of rice varieties, and a number of different inbred versions of Golden Rice are expected to be released in the future not only in the Philippines but also in other parts of the world where Vitamin A deficiency is rife and where rice is the staple food.
With Golden Rice as an additional option to existing programs such as diet diversification, breast feeding, vitamin supplementation, and food fortification efforts, a multi-pronged long term sustainable solution to the scourge of Vitamin A deficiency is in sight.