Filipino farmers get approval to grow nutritious Golden Rice

By Joan Conrow

July 23, 2021

Farmers in the Philippines have gotten the green light to grow Golden Rice, which has been genetically engineered to contain nutrients that can improve health, especially in young children.

The commercial cultivation permit, issued July 21, marks the successful culmination of a decades-long initiative to develop rice that delivers additional levels of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, an essential nutrient.

About one in five children from the poorest communities in the Philippines suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which affects an estimated 190 million children worldwide. The condition is the most common cause of childhood blindness, as well as a contributing factor to a weakened immune system.

“This milestone puts the Philippines at the global forefront in leveraging agriculture research to address the issues of malnutrition and related health impacts in a safe and sustainable way,” said Dr. Jean Balié, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a CGIAR research center.  IRRI developed the improved grain in partnership with the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) under the Healthier Rice project.

Studies have shown that one cup of cooked Golden Rice contains enough beta-carotene to meet up to 30 to 50 percent of the vitamin A needs for children under the age of 5 — the group in the Philippines most at risk of  VAD. At present, only two out of 10 Filipino households get sufficient quantities of vitamin A in their daily diet. Golden Rice adds an important nutrient to a staple food in the Philippines, where people eat about 120 kilograms of rice annually per capita.

“By improving rice varieties that address farmer, consumer and environment needs, precision breeding innovations such as genetic engineering and gene editing can open up pathways for more inclusive participation in the food system,” said Dr. Ajay Kohli, IRRI director for research.

“Rigorous research and regulatory review have demonstrated that Golden Rice is as safe as ordinary rice with the added benefit of beta-carotene in its grains,” he added. “This milestone approval is the product of cross-cutting collaborative work in the agriculture and nutrition sciences, the public sector,and local farming communities, who are all looking forward to seeing Golden Rice reach the tables of those who need it the most.”

Golden Rice has already received food safety approvals from regulators in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but the Philippines is the first country to approve commercial cultivation. The crop is currently undergoing final regulatory review in Bangladesh.

“The regulatory success of Golden Rice demonstrates the research leadership of DA-PhilRice and the robustness of the Philippine biosafety regulatory system,” Balié added.

Several steps still need to be taken before farmers can begin planting, including varietal registration by the National Seed Industry Council (NSIC) and increasing the volume of available seed.

“As always, we are committed to ensuring the highest quality of seed for farmers and a safe and nutritious food supply for all Filipinos,” said Dr. John C. de Leon, executive director of DA-PhilRice. The agency will be implementing a comprehensive quality assurance and stewardship program that covers all steps in the chain, from seed production to post-harvest processing to marketing, he noted.

In keeping with its designation as a humanitarian crop, the vitamin A-enriched rice will be deployed in partnership with appropriate agencies through market-based and programmatic approaches, including feeding programs in areas where the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is high.

“The last-mile delivery of Golden Rice is just one component of a food systems approach to nutrition, which also includes community outreach and extension services and improved market access for farmers,” Kohli said.

The Healthier Rice Program is also working on higher iron and zinc rice (HIZR) to address the “hidden hunger” of multiple micronutrient deficiencies that affects over two billion people worldwide. The goal is to release a stacked variety containing beta-carotene, iron and zinc.