Golden Rice: Alleviating Global Vitamin A Deficiency through Genetic Engineering

By: Sean Lemuel L. Santos (Hybrizyme)
Edited by: Andrea Kariza Formantes (Cyclosome)
An image of the GMO called Golden Rice (Image taken from: www.gmwatch.org)
Researches about genetically modifying an organism are still a recurring issue in our society. Many anti-GMOs believe that these are unsafe for consumption yet despite the criticisms, scientists still continue to breed and improve on new crop varieties that will benefit the mankind.

In genetic engineering, a desired gene from a DNA of a certain organism is incorporated to the DNA of another organism. Unlike in conventional breeding, genetic engineering can generate desirable crops in a more specific way and at a faster pace. One promising genetically modified crop that is currently being developed is the Golden rice.

The development of the golden rice is due to the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency among children worldwide. In the Philippines alone, about 2.1 million children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, as reported by Ocampo in 2017, which is a manifestation of the poverty in the country. Although, many interventions have also been put in place like: breastfeeding programs, Vitamin A supplementation and food fortification. However, these interventions have been insufficient in combatting Vitamin A deficiency. Indeed, there is a need to develop a sustainable solution that would globally alleviate vitamin A deficiency.

Golden rice, currently being developed by IRRI and PhilRice, is similar to other types of rice, except that it has two more genes that have been added in its DNA. One gene came from a corn while the other one was taken from a soil bacterium. These two genes are responsible in producing two enzymes that complete the process for producing beta-carotene, something that is not present in other rice varieties.

According to Dr. Steven Ehrlich in 2015, the beta-carotene is responsible for its yellowish color. It is a compound that is also present in carrots, squash and papaya. Beta-carotene, when taken up by the body, is converted to Vitamin A. Any excess is simply excreted. Therefore, increasing the amounts of vitamin A in rice would aid in alleviating vitamin A deficiency especially in children worldwide.

Despite Golden rice being a realistic, complementary solution in reducing Vitamin A deficiency, many anti-GMO activists still vehemently oppose the continuation of the Golden rice project as well as other GM crops.

Anti-GMOs commonly argue that Golden rice is very unsafe to be ingested and can even have long term effects on a person’s health. However, this is not true because based on the study conducted by Tang, Qin, Dolnikowski, Russell, & Grusak in 2009 it shows that the beta-carotene in golden rice is the same beta-carotene present in carrots. Another study by the Golden Rice Project validated that golden rice does not contain compounds that can cause allergies or act as a toxin. Also, further tests are still being done to determine the safety of Golden rice before it is released to the public. It is therefore very presumptuous to say that it is already unsafe when experiments are still unfinished.

But assuming that Golden rice is unsafe, should we then throw out genetic engineering and give up on the development of this technology? Remember, when cars were first introduced in the market, many people feared that cars would be unsafe and might explode since it carries gasoline. But engineers did not stop on improving cars. Now, millions of people are using automobiles and have benefitted from the progress made by improving and not giving up on something that was initially perceived as unsafe.

Another reason for their objection is the possibility of cross-pollination between Golden rice and non-genetically modified (GM) rice. They feared that when this happens, it could lead to the loss of biodiversity among the non-GM rice.

Scientists working at Golden rice have already put up measures to prevent this. First, the area where Golden rice plants have been planted are placed at a certain distance away from non-GMs, making cross-pollination very unlikely. Also based on PhilRice, cross-pollination only occurs when both GM and non-GM rice are flowering at the same time; so, it is very easy to prevent this by planting the crops at different times.

In terms of practicality, Anti-GMOs argue that Golden rice does not produce enough beta-carotene and that there are many other ways of obtaining Vitamin A like eating Vitamin A rich foods instead of eating Golden rice.

First of all, the current Golden rice has been improved to produce 20x more beta-carotene than the initial one as stated by Andy Coghlan in 2005. Also, eating Vitamin A rich diet is very far-fetched to poor families, considering the fact that they cannot even afford to buy foods rich in Vitamin A. With this, scientists developed it on rice to get sufficient Vitamin A since rice is the most consumed staple crop in developing countries that would be more accessible and affordable to poor families.

Another objection that they have raised is that Golden rice might be used only for commercialization where the big companies would get most of the economic gains. To be fair enough, if Golden rice is indeed being commercialized, the government must be asked to put measures in order to prohibit its sole use for economic gain and not for humanitarian reasons. But is Golden rice really being commercialized?

Golden rice was initiated through the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1982. When the Golden rice was developed, the people involved in the project donated this technology to poor countries like the Philippines that it may alleviate the problem of Vitamin A deficiency. And currently, Golden rice is being developed by the Philippine Rice Research Institute, a government organization and the International Rice Research Institute, a non-profit organization.

Despite these objections, Golden rice remains to be a very safe, viable, and practical solution to solve the Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) crisis in poor countries as evidence suggests. Golden rice is the penicillin of the future. When Alexander Fleming made the very first antibiotic, millions of children were spared of dying from bacterial infections. Similarly, with the introduction of Golden rice, millions of children suffering from VAD could avoid the risks of getting blind or infected.

There may be fear, doubt and opposition to Golden rice being a GM crop, but it is a technology worth considering and developing, especially now that we are in an era of scientific advancements. It may still be not perfect (though there is no technology that is), but it should still be kept and improved for the benefit of the present and future generations.


References:
Coghlan, A. (2005, March 27). New ‘golden rice’ carries far more vitamin. Retrieved from New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7196-new-golden-rice-carries-far-more-vitamin/

Ehrlich, S. (2015, March 23). Beta-carotene. Retrieved from University of Maryland Health Center: http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/betacarotene

Ocampo, K. A. (2017, August 29). Field trial for ‘golden rice’ readied. Retrieved from Inquirer.Net: http://business.inquirer.net/235924/field-trial-golden-rice-readied

PhilRice. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions on Golden Rice. Retrieved from Department of Agriculture-PhilRice: http://www.philrice.gov.ph/golden-rice/qa/

Tang, G., Qin, J., Dolnikowski, G. G., Russell, R. M., & Grusak, M. A. (2009). Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A. The Americal Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(6), 1776-1783.


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