A breakthrough for Golden Rice

PlantingRice More than 10 years after the release of Golden Rice – rice genetically modified to contain high levels of provitamin A  – trials are about to begin in Bangladesh and the Philippines to assess whether eating Golden Rice really does increase vitamin A levels in the body. Vitamin A deficiency is a cause of blindness in many parts of the world where malnutrition is a problem and is also associated with other health problems. 

So why has it taken so long? Had it been produced by ‘conventional’ breeding, Golden Rice would almost certainly have been available years ago. Regulations governing the acceptance of genetically engineered crops and a host of IP issues have delayed or prevented its introduction. Newer strains of Golden Rice bred in the last few years have even higher levels of the provitamin A (beta-carotene) which gives it its characteristic ‘golden’ colour, and one bowl a day of this rice could provide the entire dietary requirement of the nutrient.

The emphasis is on the word ‘could’ and this is why participation of the Helen Keller Foundation in a new IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) project is pivotal. I hadn't realized that, whilst Golden Rice grains are high in provitamin A, it’s still unclear whether this results in long-term increases in vitamin A in the body. Clinical studies in 20091 in which Golden Rice was served to a sample of healthy adult volunteers concluded that beta-carotene derived from Golden Rice did effectively convert to vitamin A in humans, but the sample was small and the study short-term.

The trials in Bangladesh and the Philippines should help determine whether daily consumption of Golden Rice can help reduce vitamin A deficiency on an ongoing basis and hence reduce blindness. The project will also generate and collect safety information related to Golden Rice for submission to regulators in 2013 in the Philippines and 2015 in Bangladesh. Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same
as other rice, and they will be able to save seeds for replanting.

CAB Abstracts covers all aspects of breeding and development of “Golden Rice” and its potential for solving malnutrition due to vitamin A deficiency, with over 100 abstracts of research ranging from genetic engineering to biosafety and food security.

1. Tang, G. W.; Qin, J.; Dolnikowski, G. G.; Russell, R. M.; Grusak, M. A. Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009, 89, 6, pp 1776-1783, 29 ref.

Why Can’t GM and Organic Just Get Along?

Growing of organic and genetically modified crops on neighbouring farms continues to be contentious, especially in Europe, but the issue of coexistence of same-species crops for different markets is not limited to GM. In a paper entitled “Can GM and organic agriculture coexist?”, Eberhard Weber points to the need for oilseed rape for cooking and industrial oil to be segregated, and similarly for crops for human food and animal feed for both maize and barley. Writing in CAB Reviews, he says that such situations work on the principle that some contamination will happen, but that “threshold values above zero for adventitious presence must be defined for coexistence rules.”

One company growing GM maize in Germany offered to buy maize from neighbouring non-GM farmers on the same conditions they would achieve without a GM neighbour. “The neighbouring farmers agreed, meaning that no coexistence problem arose,” says Weber, from Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg.

Weber notes that various organic organisations only require that the production process organic farmers use must not involve GMOs, rather than that they must ensure no GMO presence in their products. He quotes the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements: “Organic products are not defined as being free of unwanted pollution. Just as organic farmers cannot guarantee zero contamination from pesticides they do not use themselves, there is no way for them to guarantee that organic products will not be polluted by traces of GMOs.”

Weber looks at the various planting arrangements suggested to minimise gene flow to neighbouring fields. “Many experiments show that the GMO content is reduced with increasing distance as it should be, but no zero level can be achieved”. However, the variability of wind direction means no models can be entirely reliable.

As long as the same threshold value is valid for conventional and organic products, the GM farmer should not have to distinguish between neighbours with conventional and organic production, says Weber. ”The best way will always be agreement between farmers. As long as only farmers are involved, this can mostly be achieved.” However, he says that the involvement of other groups who try to influence political decisions on the rules make it difficult to predict the future of coexistence.

Can GM and organic agriculture coexist?”by  Eberhard Weber appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2008, 3, No. 072, 8 pp.