Golden Rice research must continue
“No farmer must be left behind” was the challenge addressed to 1,500 scientists and delegates, hailing from 69 countries, who are here in Bangkok to attend the 4th International Rice Congress. This call to action adds all the more to our resolve to develop Golden Rice, a potential new food-based approach to help fight vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a form of hidden hunger. We remain steadfast because, in addition to farmers, we also believe that no rice consumers, especially women and children, should be left behind.
Hidden hunger is a pervasive and persistent problem affecting more than 2 billion people globally. Specifically, 190 million preschool children and 19 million pregnant women are still vitamin A-deficient globally. It is imperative that all relevant actors who can contribute complementary interventions actually do so. As a breeder myself, it gives me pride and joy to be part of a humanitarian project that seeks to address a major public health problem.
Golden Rice is an example of how agriculture and nutrition can work together to fight VAD. I have been in nutrition conferences, too, and have learned from our nutrition experts that like other forms of hidden hunger, VAD is a multidimensional problem with no single, complete solution. All sectors need to contribute pragmatic - not merely rhetorical - solutions to solve the problem.
Golden Rice can be a potential sustainable complement to alleviating VAD. The initial investment in developing and testing Golden Rice can generate new, healthier rice varieties that farmers can grow for years to come. Because most rice is consumed near to where it is grown, it is envisioned that there will be low distribution costs for Golden Rice.
Some groups are keen on stopping the deployment of Golden Rice by raising speculations that a) it will threaten food security by contaminating traditional rice varieties, b) it is being forced to farmers and consumers as a complete solution to VAD, and c) its lengthy development shows that it is a false solution to VAD.
To answer the first point, it is incorrect to speculate that Golden Rice will threaten food security. It is unlikely that Golden Rice will contaminate traditional or conventional rice varieties because rice is typically self-pollinated and cross-pollination is uncommon. Furthermore, the Golden Rice trait does not confer any selective advantage, it does not make the plant stronger nor weaker than others. The wild rice species do not cross readily with cultivated rice varieties even if they are growing close together and flower at the same time because of incompatibility.
On the second point, IRRI and its partners have never claimed that Golden Rice is the silver bullet that will totally solve VAD. We have always emphasized that Golden Rice will be a complement, not a replacement, to the current strategies in the fight against VAD. Eating diverse diets, fortification, and supplementation must continue. But where and when these are not available, Golden Rice can help address VAD.
Further, like all other technologies developed by IRRI, Golden Rice will be offered as an option to farmers and consumers. Farmers know how to choose what seeds that will work best in their specific location, while consumers have the same decision-making capability in their purchases. When it becomes available, the decision to plant or consume Golden Rice is left to each individual.
Lastly, the R&D on Golden Rice is still ongoing because we want to ensure that it will bring benefits to those who will plant it, and those who need it most. It should be noted that IRRI’s high-yielding varieties and farming technologies have enabled increases in production per land area for farmers and made rice generally more affordable for consumers.
The increased yields obtained through IRRI technologies can help rice farmers to free up land area to raise other nutritious crops and animals. As rice becomes less expensive for consumers, households have more money to spend on other things including more micronutrient and protein-rich foods. For Golden Rice, the research is still ongoing so that it will have comparable yield as local high-yielding varieties. Hence, it can further enable farmers and consumers to obtain a diversified diet, which is one way to address VAD.
Research on Golden Rice continues to be motivated by its potential contributions to solving the global problem of VAD that afflicts more than 200 million people, especially women and children. As a responsible research institution, IRRI is committed to offer high quality options for farmers and consumers, none of whom should be left behind.