Nutrient-rich golden rice—a genetically-modified, amber-hued crop—has passed a rigorous biosafety assessment in the Philippines, where it may soon be distributed to combat the country’s widespread vitamin A deficiency. The plant is engineered to be packed with beta-carotene, an orange pigment that the body converts into the essential nutrient vitamin A.
Declared “as safe as conventional rice” by the Department of Agriculture in December, golden rice can now be legally consumed and processed. The stamp of approval makes it the first GMO crop created to combat a public health issue in a lower-income country, reports Steve Baragona for Voice of America.
In a statement, congressperson Sharon Garin of the Phillipines' House of Representatives praised the development as “a victory for science, agriculture and all Filipinos,” according to Charissa Luci-Atienza at the Manila Bulletin.
The Philippines is one of several lower-income countries with widespread vitamin A deficiency, a dietary condition that can cause blindness and hamstring the immune system. More than half a million children die from the deficiency each year, in large part because they don’t consume enough beta-carotene, which is present in only scant amounts in staple grains like rice.
While vitamin A supplements have found their way into many afflicted countries, roughly 20 percent of children under the age of five remain deficient in the Philippines. To fill in the gap, researchers have pushed for the introduction of low-cost crops rich in beta-carotene.
Golden rice, first unveiled as a prototype in 1999, fits the bill: Adding less than a cup of the grain to a child’s diet could meet up to half of their daily needs. But by the end of 2018, nearly two decades since the plant’s arrival on the scientific scene, only a handful of countries—Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, all high-income nations with few vitamin A issues—had deemed it safe to grow and eat en masse, reports Michael Le Page for New Scientist. Much of the resistance in these countries and others, Le Page writes, has come from groups campaigning against GMOs and their alleged negative effects on health.
That makes the Philippines’ approval of the crop a huge milestone, especially amidst false rumors that its beta-carotene would break down into cancer-causing chemicals, Le Page reports. (As safety assessments continue, Bangladesh may be next in line.) But the recent news has also been met with pushback: Late last month, environmental organization Greenpeace appealed the Department of Agriculture to overturn its decision, citing a lack of data and transparency in the approval process. In an interview with Louise Maureen Simeon at the Philippine Star, Adrian Dubock, an executive at the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, disputed the claims.
“They examined in detail all the evidence submitted by the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute and found that there was no potential to cause harm from Golden Rice consumed as food, or animal feed, including in processed form,” Dubock tells Simeon.
Scientific consensus has long held that golden rice—as well as other GMOs on the market—are safe to plant, process and eat. The crop’s successful safety clearance, officials hope, will help quell the controversy. “We are trying to dispel the notion that commercially-produced biofortified goods are potentially dangerous,” Garin said in the statement.
While useful, golden rice shouldn’t be considered a panacea, Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, tells Baragona. Another priority involves diversifying the diets of people in countries suffering from these deficiencies with more fruits and vegetables, he says. Such a shift, however, would take more time and effort, and perhaps a larger cultural change. As a possible substitute for white rice, golden rice might more seamlessly integrate into the diet, explains Dubock in an interview with Baragona.
But the golden grain won’t be served to the Filipino public just yet. The crop has yet to get the green light for commercial propagation—a necessary step for farmers to plant it in their fields. The International Rice Research Institute, the Philippine-based organization developing the country’s golden rice, plans to submit its application for approval early this year.