Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo courtesy of PhilRice
A “potential gamechanger for the rice industry in the country.” That was how House Ways and Means Chair Joey Sarte Salceda (Albay, Second District) described golden rice after learning that the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) of the Department of Agriculture granted a biosafety permit for the commercial propagation of genetically engineered cereal in the country.
“Rice accounts for one-fifth of the basket of goods for the poor. And agriculture in general accounts for 22.5% of the labor force, even though it merely contributes 8% to gross domestic product. So, anything that raises value for the sector, such as golden rice, will make a difference,” Salceda said.
The recent government approval for the commercial cultivation of golden rice “is a most welcome, long-awaited development for the science community,” to quote the words of National Scientist Emil Q. Javier and Institute of Plant Breeding founder.
“We had been long waiting for golden rice’s regulatory clearance,” pointed out Dr. Nina Gloriani, former dean of the College of Public Health at the University of the Philippines-Manila.
“This is a milestone,” Salceda added. “This biosafety approval of golden rice is the first authorization for commercial propagation of genetically engineered rice in South and Southeast Asia.”
This rice variety is the first of its kind in the scientific world because the genes for beta carotene bred into golden rice were obtained by genetic engineering. The beta carotene genes come from a genetically distant edible relative, yellow corn.
Experts from all over the world hailed the approval as an indicator of the country’s leadership role in agricultural biotechnology in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The country’s pioneering path began in 1990 with the establishment of its first biosafety policy and was further strengthened by Administrative Order No. 8, Series of 2002 (AO8), which opened the pathways for “local agriculture to benefit from the safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology.”
While A08 has since been superseded by the Joint Department Circular no. 1 series of 2016, the spirit of scientific inquiry for the social good that it fostered continues to this day.
A08 architect Leonardo Montemayor, who’s currently the board chairman of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF), said he considers modern biotechnology as a tool in curbing vitamin A deficiency (VAD).
Lack of vitamin A predisposes people, especially children, to increased risk of respiratory diseases, diarrhea, measles, night blindness, and can lead to death. VAD continues to be major nutrition and public health concern in low- and middle-income countries, including the Philippines. It affects some 190 million children under five years of age worldwide.
“Let us promote other sources of vitamin A – malunggay, squash, and camote, but let us not close our eyes from the possibility that modern biotechnology can provide an additional tool for us to address VAD. If (golden) rice turns out to be something very useful, at least it is very convenient compared to other sources of vitamin A. Let us have a range of (choices) for people, especially kids, for them to have better access to vitamin A,” Montemayor said.
According to Dr. Gloriani, the Philippines had been remarkably successful in combating VAD in recent years. Based on a study done by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), the country has brought down VAD prevalence among children from 40% down to 17% between 2003 and 2008. However, among the poorest fifth of Filipino children, VAD prevalence remains unacceptably high at 26%.
The deficiency numbers, however, have not changed between 2008 and 2018. As such, health experts believe there’s still a lot of things to be done. In a FNRI nutritional survey done in 2019, only two out of 10 Filipino households meet the estimated average equivalent for Vitamin A.
Health experts believe partial relief could be provided by golden rice. Laboratory and human feeding trials suggest that one cup of cooked golden rice can provide 30–42% of Vitamin A estimated average equivalent for pre-school children.
Since the beta carotene is naturally embedded in the golden rice grain, the needed essential nutrient comes at no additional cost and effort to the consumer, a significant benefit to poor households.
Dr. Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., chairman of the Agriculture Sciences Division of the National Academy of Science and Technology, said the development of golden rice took very long (over 20 years) because the beta carotene genes from yellow corn had to be meticulously transferred into popular rice varieties acceptable to farmers.
Otherwise, the farmers will not plant them. “The new golden rice varieties must have high yield, resistant to pests and diseases, suited to a wide range of growing conditions and with superior eating quality,” said the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).
The conversion of regular rice varieties into golden rice involved conventional plant breeding methods spanning over many crop generations and years, PhilRice said, adding that, unlike the regular white well-milled rice, the grains of golden rice is translucent golden yellow in color.
When cooked, golden rice looks very much like the saffron-colored rice in the Spanish paella, a dish many Filipino chefs have adopted as very much part of Filipino cuisine.
Rice specialist Dr. Reynante Ordonio said that PhilRice would initially promote the cultivation of golden rice versions of two registered varieties — PSBRc 82 and NSICRc 283.
As the golden rice beta carotene genes are regularly incorporated in national rice breeding programs, more golden rice inbreds and hybrids are expected to be released in the future, not only in the Philippines but also in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America where VAD is rife and where rice is the major staple.
Golden rice was invented by Professor Ingo Potrykus, then of the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and of Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany.
National Scientist Javier clarified that all along, golden rice had been intended by its inventors as an additional option. It should not be a substitute for existing VAD elimination programs.
With golden rice, a naturally bio-fortified no-additional-cost option now available to consumers, a multipronged long-term sustainable solution to the scourge of vitamin deficiency in many parts of the developing world is in sight.
Meanwhile, some people are wary about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food they eat. On this matter, Montemayor said, “We have to establish our framework and all necessary guidelines to regulate and monitor these, and make sure that safety protocols and regulations are in place.”
“On the matter of GMOs in the country, we have to establish our framework and all necessary guidelines to regulate and monitor these, and make sure that safety protocols and regulations are in place,” he said.
In terms of the proprietary right of golden rice, Montemayor said no proprietary issues will emerge as Syngenta, which previously owned it, waived its right to the public domain. This means that PhilRice and the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are free to research, develop, and come up with the final output.
“By working to bring golden rice to the tables of those who need it the most, PhilRice is fulfilling its mandate to provide safe and nutritious rice, and paves the way for agriculture and nutrition sectors to work closely together to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life of all Filipinos,” PhilRice states.