Golden Rice fully licensed to India
from Switzerland, five years after the strain was engineered to
help combat blindness and disease in Asia, writes Hyridyesh
Golden rice has attracted much attention because it has been developed to contain building blocks for vitamin A. The prospect of offering daily doses of key nutrients to millions of Asians in their staple food has excited both researchers and governments world-wide.
Golden Rice is a transgenic variety of rice, which has genes for the synthesis of b-carotene. These genes are taken from the garden favourite Narcissus pseudonarcissus (daffodil) and inserted into the genome of a temperate strain of rice.
The grain got its name because it glows with the golden colour of beta-carotene, the yellow-orange compound that gives carrots their colour and the world's most common source of vitamin A.
The Genetically Modified (GM) Golden Rice is being offered free to India where vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in up to 500,000 children each year, according to World Health Organisation figures.
British scientists have also developed a new genetically modified strain of sunflower-yellow, vitamin-enriched rice for free transfer to countries like India in the hope it will prevent millions of children in the developing world from going blind. The new variety of so-called "golden rice" produces 20 times more beta-carotene than previous varieties of the grain, which was first created five years ago in a Swiss laboratory as a triumph of humanist-science.
The news however raises the complex issue of genetic modification of plants for the benefit of poor countries. Such developments offer cheaper or more plentiful supply of key nutrients than current sources, however they also face safety concerns and consumer resistance to genetic engineering.
The original golden rice has not yet been grown in field trials in Asia, although the firm says that public rice research institutions in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia are in various stages of developing locally adapted varieties.
Greenpeace has criticised the lack of information given on the bioavailability of beta-carotene from the rice in the body, noting that the original variety was also designed to increase intake of this nutrient but children could not get their daily requirement from eating normal quantities of rice.
It adds that several other approaches to solve vitamin A deficiency have been shown to work efficiently and the Golden Rice project is likely to distract the necessary public awareness of solutions like vitamin A supplementation and political efforts against malnutrition.
However scientists are ready to try out an improved version of the genetically modified rice aimed at curbing blindness among children.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Indian council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) signed a work plan to collaborate in rice research, focusing on genetic enhancement in terms of yield and quantity.
At present, the ICAR is concentrating on two varieties of rice fortified with iron and Vitamin A. The emphasis of the research is on enriching rice grain with iron and zinc through fertilizer use to improve nutrition. They are also working on the development of rice-resistant varieties for drought-prone environments.
In Asia, the average person eats rice two or three times a day and it also has become a staple food in many African countries. Milled white rice contains essentially no beta-carotene and unmilled brown rice contains a very small amount.