Nutrient-enriched “golden rice”, a major innovation in fighting malnutrition, could be on Filipino tables within just 18 months after the government became the first in the world to approve the crop.
The Philippines has given the green light for farmers to plant the rice, a genetically engineered grain containing higher levels of beta-carotene which the body converts into vitamin A.
It is hoped that the crop will have a big impact in tackling vitamin A deficiencies among the country’s poorest families. Around one in five children are affected in the Philippines, leading to weakened immune systems and causing childhood blindness in the most severe cases.
The rice also has global potential. Around 190 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency worldwide, and in total two billion people face some form of micronutrient deficiency that can have implications for health and wellbeing.
While there are other fortified foods, like oil and flour, and even rice products, golden rice is the first genetically engineered product on the market. It has regulatory approval from food safety bodies in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, but the Philippines is the first country to back commercial cultivation.
Dr Russell Reinke, from the International Rice Research Institute – which developed the rice with the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Rice Research Institute – said the aim was to have a major public health impact. “We hope this will be another tool in the toolbox to combat malnutrition,” he told The Telegraph.
Rice is seen as among the best foods to modify because it is the number one staple in the world, and in some countries represents up to 75 per cent of daily calorie intake. However, in its natural state, white rice in particular is almost entirely free of nutrients.