Golden rice next to regular rice. The golden one has beta carotene, a source for vitamin-A. Photo Courtesy: IRRI
Bangladesh is all set for developing further the world's first-ever vitamin A-rich rice.
A genetically engineered variety, the Golden Rice will go through greenhouse and field tests before advancing into production phase.
And if everything goes well, Bangladesh, within 5 years, will be able to fight vitamin A deficiency in expecting mothers and children through the most-consumed food item.
The deficiency causes blindness and child death in acute cases.
The country's most productive rice variety -- BRRI Dhan 29 -- engineered at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines with beta carotene-rich genes from corn-- was successfully field-tested at the IRRI in February.
This is a big step towards developing Golden Rice, said scientists at Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) at Joydebpur, who are involved in the process.
"This week we are applying for permission to import the beta carotene-rich BRRI Dhan-29 from the IRRI experiment field and make a greenhouse trial at BRRI prior to going for open field trial in Bangladesh," said Dr Alamgir Hossain, principal plant breeder at BRRI.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) global database on vitamin A deficiency, one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is vitamin A-deficient, and 23.7 percent of pregnant women are affected by vitamin A deficiency.
Alamgir Hossain told The Daily Star on Saturday that once released commercially, consumption of only 150 gram of Golden Rice a day will supply half of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A for an adult. This is expected to revolutionise fighting vitamin A-deficiency in the mostly rice-eating Asian countries where the poor have limited access to vitamin A sources other than rice.
BRRI Dhan-29 along with an IRRI variety IR-64 and a Filipino variety RC-28 have gone through the process in which these three were genetically engineered to have greater expressions of corn gene responsible for producing beta carotene.
The GE technology was first applied by Prof Ingo Potrykus, then at the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Prof Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Their insertion of beta carotene-enriched gene from daffodil to rice caught world attention back in late '90s, and the rice became known as Golden Rice. After years of scientific research and experiments IRRI found it more rewarding to transfer the beta carotene gene to rice from corn than daffodil.
Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which on April 13 sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines, expects that Golden Rice variety of BRRI Dhan-29 will be ready for regulatory approval by 2015.
Alamgir, who had worked with former IRRI biotechnologist Swapan K Datta, however, said, "We will be able to make our home-grown Golden Rice ready for seeking approval much ahead of 2015 if the government, particularly the regulators, take a pro-active role in finishing the safety trial processes quickly." Born in Sirajganj of Bangladesh, Swapan was the first to infuse daffodil's beta carotene-producing gene into BRRI Dhan-29 nearly 10 years back.
During e-mail correspondence in the last few days, officials concerned at IRRI and Gates Foundation confirmed that as the Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice when released for commercial farming in Bangladesh will be of the same price as other rice, and farmers will be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish.
IRRI also issued a press release on April 13 announcing that the world's premier rice research institute in league with BRRI and PhilRice, the national rice research institutes of Bangladesh and the Philippines respectively, have joined with Helen Keller International (HKI) in a new effort to further develop and evaluate Golden Rice as a potential tool to reduce vitamin A deficiency.
"Golden Rice is a unique type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Globally, approximately 6,70,000 children die every year and another 3,50,000 go blind because they are vitamin Adeficient," says the IRRI release.
IRRI's Golden Rice project leader Dr Gerard Barry says, “IRRI and its partners have been working on Golden Rice for about 10 years to develop a safe and effective way to address vitamin A deficiency, prevent blindness, and save lives. Our latest stage of work is now supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and will bring in HKI -- a new partner from the nutrition sector-- to further understand how well Golden Rice can reduce vitamin A deficiency.”
HKI Vice President and Regional Director for Asia-Pacific Nancy Haselow says, “The most vulnerable children and women in hard-to-reach areas are often missed by existing interventions that can improve vitamin A status, including vitamin A supplementation, food fortification, dietary diversification, and promotion of optimal breast-feeding.”