Golden Rice—a potential tool to reduce vitamin A deficiency

Author // Sophie Clayton Categories // Golden Rice blog

Vitamin A and human health

Vitamin A is an essential micronutrient that helps the body to fight diseases and maintain healthy eyesight. Vitamin A deficiency lowers immune system function, causing people to get sick more often and have a higher risk of dying from infections. Vitamin A deficiency can also cause night blindness and is a leading cause of preventable blindness in children.

Vitamin A deficiency particularly affects infants, young children, and women who are pregnant or nursing. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. With adequate vitamin A, young children are up to 30 percent less likely to die from infections and the death rate for women during or shortly after pregnancy can be reduced by approximately 40 percent.

Vitamin A deficiency can be reduced by eating more foods that are naturally high in vitamin A or beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A), by eating foods that have had these micronutrients added to them, or by taking supplements.

Vitamin A deficiency in rice-consuming populations

Vitamin A deficiency can be particularly severe in countries where the staple food contains no forms of vitamin A and other nutritious food is scarce, unavailable, or too expensive.

Rice is the staple food crop for more than half of the world’s population, and is especially important in Asia, where more than 60% of the world’s 1 billion poorest live. Rice is an affordable and filling food, yet it contains no source of vitamin A. More than 90 million children in Southeast Asia suffer from vitamin A deficiency, more than in any other region.

Golden Rice

Golden Rice is a type of rice that contains beneficial amounts of beta-carotene, which is used by the human body to make vitamin A. Beta-carotene gives Golden Rice its yellow color. Many fruits and vegetables, such as papaya and carrots, also get their color from beta-carotene. Golden Rice was bred using a combination of genetic modification and other breeding methods. It contains genes from maize and other sources that together produce beta-carotene. Golden Rice is expected to taste the same as other rice, be cooked in the same way, and have the same eating quality of other popular rice varieties.

According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, one cup of Golden Rice could supply half of the vitamin A needed every day. Golden Rice could be used in combination with existing ways of overcoming vitamin A deficiency through diet, fortification, and supplements.

Researchers have already found that the body turns more than 25% of the beta-carotene in Golden Rice into vitamin A, a better conversion rate than for many green, leafy vegetables.

Developing Golden Rice

Work to develop Golden Rice currently includes laboratory, greenhouse, and field studies at IRRI, national agricultural research institutions, and other institutions around the world to

  • breed Golden Rice varieties that are well suited for different rice-growing environments and consumer preferences in Asia,
  • confirm the nutritional benefits of Golden Rice  in combating Vitamin A deficiency, and
  • evaluate the safety of Golden Rice.

This research on Golden Rice will ensure that any approved Golden Rice varieties will grow just like other rice crops, with comparable yields and pest resistance, and with the same environmental impacts. It is expected that Golden Rice will be planted, harvested, threshed, and milled like current rice varieties.
All Golden Rice research is conducted according to national biosafety regulations and additional biosafety conditions established by the institutes carrying out the research.

IRRI’s role

IRRI coordinates the Golden Rice Network and works with national agricultural research institutes and other partners with expertise in agriculture and nutrition to research and develop Golden Rice. IRRI’s support for partners includes initial breeding of the Golden Rice trait into selected varieties, which involves laboratory work, greenhouse tests, and some preliminary field evaluation. These advanced breeding lines are being transferred to national partners for further development and assessment.

IRRI also works with national partners to

  • provide technical support and training to help with breeding and development and build scientific capacity at the national level,
  • help develop locally adapted plans to deliver Golden Rice to farmers and consumers, and
  • research and collate biosafety data.

National partners

National agricultural research institutes in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are leading their in-country development of Golden Rice. They manage varietal development and selection, do field evaluations, and undertake biosafety research for science-based regulatory review of Golden Rice in the country. National partners will also interact with other public- and private-sector institutions and government to advance the release and adoption of Golden Rice by farmers and consumers.

Availability of Golden Rice

Golden Rice will be available to farmers and consumers only after it has been authorized by the agricultural, environmental, health, and food safety agencies of their countries. Public health officials, nongovernment organizations, grain traders, and private industry will be consulted in each country before Golden Rice is introduced.

Golden Rice may be approved in the Philippines and Bangladesh as early as 2013 and 2015, respectively, and introduced to the public in those countries soon after. Other countries developing Golden Rice in local varieties are India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Golden Rice will be made available to people with vitamin A deficiency in different ways depending on community needs and preferences.

Golden Rice will cost no more than other rice for farmers and consumers.

Funding for Golden Rice

Because of its enormous potential to benefit public health, the technology behind Golden Rice has been donated by its inventors, Professor Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, for use by public institutions. Different governments and private charities are supporting the development and testing costs.

A one-time investment to develop a biofortified crop such as Golden Rice can generate new varieties for farmers to grow for years to come, in many different countries. There will be some recurrent expenditure for monitoring and maintaining the high beta-carotene trait in Golden Rice, but these costs will be relatively low compared with the ongoing costs of traditional supplementation and fortification programs.





About the Author

Sophie Clayton

Sophie Clayton

Sophie is the former head of IRRI's Public Relations team.