People Pope Blesses Golden Rice



Legislative and Public Affairs Director published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 100-150 g of cooked GR provided 60% of the Chinese Recommended Intake of vitamin A. Estimates suggest that supplementing GR for 20% of the diet of children and 10% for pregnant women and mothers will be enough to combat the effects of VAD.

Unfortunately, public misconceptions about genetically modified (GM) organisms have prevented GR from being available to the countries most affected by VAD. One such country is the Philippines, where more than 80% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and field trials of GR are nearing completion. An official blessing of the church, therefore, could do a great deal to build support, allowing the Philippines to serve as a model for many of its neighbors on the potential health impacts of widespread availability and consumption of the golden grain.

Regrettably, the church did not provide an official endorsement. It turns out that there is quite a distinction between the pope's personal blessing and an official statement of support from the Vatican. To understand the nature of that distinction, we turned to the person who elicited the blessing, GR coinventor and ASPB member Ingo Potrykus. At the time of the blessing, Ingo, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, had been attending a meeting at the Vatican on the interaction of nutrition and brain development. At the end of the meeting, he was able to meet Pope Francis and took the opportunity to share a packet of GR. In response, the pope offered his personal blessing. (If an official blessing of the Holy See was given, it would come from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.) From Ingo's perspective, the pope is concerned that genetic modification technology primarily benefits big business and not the poor.

The most immediate hurdle to the usage of GR, according to Ingo, is the impending deregulation by the Philippine Department of Agriculture. Although no damage has been reported from the recent typhoon (Haiyan) that struck this part of the world, the fields had already been harvested. Philippine officials have been following GR development and field trials for several years, and Ingo believes that the government will ultimately give "the green light."bit. ly/1bXh9AX), which has expertise in VAD and blindness. Only after the study will farmers be allowed to plant GR, said Ingo.

GR distribution will be carried out by existing small-scale operations. Further, it will be sold at the same price as conventional cultivars. It is believed that this will help to facilitate adoption. In addition to vitamin A production, Ingo believes that other agronomic improvements, such as increased pest resistance and yield, will further increase the attractiveness of GR to farmers.

While not a full-throated endorsement of GR or GM, the pope's blessing is a step in the right direction. It is also an important indicator of slowly shifting global attitudes regarding the role that GM foods will play in the world's long-term food security.

Copyright for this article lies with ASPB News

Biofortified rice as a contribution to the alleviation of life-threatening micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries

A good start is a food start!

Dietary micronutrient deficiencies, such as the lack of vitamin A, iodine, iron or zinc, are a major source of morbidity (increased susceptibility to disease) and mortality worldwide. These deficiencies affect particularly children, impairing their immune system and normal development, causing disease and ultimately death. The best way to avoid micronutrient deficiencies is by way of a varied diet, rich in vegetables, fruits and animal products.

The second best approach, especially for those who cannot afford a balanced diet, is by way of nutrient-dense staple crops. Sweet potatoes, for example, are available as varieties that are either rich or poor in provitamin A. Those producing and accumulating provitamin A (orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes) are called biofortified ,* as opposed to the white-fleshed sweet potatoes, which do not accumulate provitamin A. In this case, what needs to be done is to introduce the biofortified varieties to people used to the white-fleshed varieties, as is happening at present in southern Africa by introducing South American varieties of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes.

Unfortunately, there are no natural provitamin A-containing rice varieties. In rice-based societies, the absence of β-carotene in rice grains manifests itself in a marked incidence of blindness and susceptibility to disease, leading to an increased incidence of premature death of small children, the weakest link in the chain.

Rice plants produce β-carotene (provitamin A) in green tissues but not in the endosperm (the edible part of the seed). The outer coat of the dehusked grains—the so-called aleurone layer—contains a number of valuable nutrients, e.g. vitamin B and nutritious fats, but no provitamin A. These nutrients are lost with the bran fraction in the process of milling and polishing. While it would be desirable to keep those nutrients with the grain, the fatty components are affected by oxidative processes that make the grain turn rancid when exposed to air. Thus, unprocessed rice—also known as brown rice—is not apt for long-term storage.

Even though all required genes to produce provitamin A are present in the grain, some of them are turned off during development. This is where the ingenuity of the Golden Rice inventors, Profs Ingo Potrykus (formerly ETH Zurich) and Peter Beyer (University of Freiburg) comes into play. They figured out how to turn on this complex pathway again with a minor intervention.

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The shocking fact is that, far from reaching the envisaged Millenium Development Goals, more than 10 million children under the age of five are still dying every year. A high proportion of those children die victims of common diseases that could be prevented through a better nutrition. This number has been equated with a ‘Nutritional Holocaust’. It is unfortunate that the world is not embracing more readily a number of approaches wih the potential to substantially reduce the number of deaths. It has been calculated that the life of 25 percent of those children could be spared by providing them with diets that included crops biofortified with provitamin A (beta-carotene) and zinc. Golden Rice is such a biofortified crop. Those involved in the project are hopeful that in a near future Golden Rice will be growing in farmers' fields and helping to improve the diets of millions of people.

Golden Rice grains are easily recognisable by their yellow to orange colour. The stronger the colour the more β-carotene. While a yellow rice is still unfamiliar to most of us, it is hoped that the pleasant colour will help promote its adoption. Would you believe that once upon a time carrots were white or purple? Orange-coloured carrots are the product of a mutation selected by a Dutch horticulturist a few hundred years ago, because it was the colour of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau!

*Welch RM and Graham RD (2004) Breeding for micronutrients in staple food crops from a human nutrition perspective. J Exp Bot 55:353-364.

Quantum leap:

Golden Rice accumulates provitamin A (β-carotene) in the grain

Rice produces β-carotene in the leaves but not in the grain, where the biosynthetic pathway is turned off during plant development. In Golden Rice two genes have been inserted into the rice genome by genetic engineering, to restart the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway leading to the production and accumulation of β-carotene in the grains. Both genes are naturally involved in carotene biosynthesis. The difference here is that the reconstructed pathway is not subject to downregulation, as usually happens in the grain.

Since a prototype of Golden Rice was developed in the year 2000, new lines with higher β-carotene content have been generated. The intensity of the golden colour is a visual indicator of the concentration of β-carotene in the endosperm.Our goal is to make sure that people living in rice-based societies get a full complement of provitamin A from their traditional diets. This would apply to countries such as India, Vietnam, Bangladesh. the Philippines, and Indonesia. Golden Rice could still be a valuable complement to children's diets in many countries by contributing to the reduction of clinical and sub-clinical vitamin A deficiency-related diseases.

Many people are aware that vitamin A has something to do with vision, especially at night. But many are not aware of the central role it plays in maintaining the integrity of the immune system. According to the World Health Organization, dietary vitamin A deficiency (VAD) compromises the immune systems of approximately 40 percent of children under the age of five in the developing world, greatly increasing the risk of severe illnesses from common childhood infections, thus causing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths among them.

In remote rural areas Golden Rice could constitute a major contribution towards sustainable vitamin A delivery. To achieve this goal a strong, concerted, and interdisciplinary effort is needed. This effort must include scientists, breeders, farmers, regulators, policy-makers, and extensionists. The latter will play a central role in educating farmers and consumers as to their available options. While the most desirable option woud be a varied and adequate diet, this goal is not always achievable, at least not in the short term. The reasons are manifold, ranging from tradition to geographical and economical limitations. Golden Rice is a step in the right direction in that it does not create new dependencies or displace traditional foodstuff.

Golden Rice. the real thing

Who is behind Golden Rice

Golden Rice is the brainchild of Profs Ingo Potrykus (ETH Zurich) and Peter Beyer (Univ of Freiburg), who in a collaborative effort were able to show that production of β-carotene could be turned on in rice grains using a minimum set of transgenes. From the beginning Golden Rice was conceived as a public-good project under the guidance of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. The initial prototype (Science 2000 ) was further improved in terms of provitamin A (β-carotene) content by a research team at Syngenta (Nature Biotechnology 2005 ). From 2005 to 2010 the project dealt mainly with breeding the novel trait into locally adapted rice varieties. Along its way the project has been funded by a number of donors, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative), USAID, the Philippine Department of Agriculture, HarvestPlus, the European Commission, Swiss Federal Funding, and the Syngenta Foundation. Several companies have provided free access to their patented technologies necessary to generate Golden Rice. Current breeding and field trialling work is being carried out by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines together with PhilRice, the Philippine Rice Research Institute. PhilRice is preparing a submission to the regulatory authority of the Philippines in 2013, which could lead to initial releases to farmers in 2014. And the work doesn't stop there. If the first hurdles are taken successfully, then Golden Rice will be heading towards China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam. In those countries national programs are already involved in laying out the necessary groundwork.

Helen Keller International

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