Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland and Professor Peter Beyer, a German professor for Cell Biology at the Faculty of Biology of the University of Freiburg, collaborated more than 20 years ago to invent Golden Rice. This rice variety contains beta-carotene (provitamin A, a plant pigment that the body converts into vitamin A). This compound is what gives this grain its golden color, hence its name.
Golden Rice has the promise to help prevent millions of deaths and to alleviate sufferings of children and adults afflicted with vitamin A deficiency (VAD). The World Health Organization said VAD is one of the main causes of preventable blindness of young children in Third World countries. According to WHO estimates, about 250 million preschool children are affected by VAD, and about 2.7 million children die because of vitamin A deficiency.
In the Western world, vitamin A deficiency is practically nonexistent. That’s because Westerners take multivitamins or get sufficient micronutrients from their food, like fortified cereals. But it is a life-and-death matter for people in developing countries. Lack of vitamin A is responsible for a million deaths annually, most of them children, plus an additional 500,000 cases of blindness.
The Rockefeller Foundation supported Potrykus and Beyer in their Golden Rice collaboration to provide a sustainable biofortification approach to combat vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries.
It took almost a decade of laboratory experimentation to invent Golden Rice, but by 1999, Potrykus, Beyer, and a group of colleagues finally succeeded. They inserted a set of genes into the rice genome so that the plant’s beta-carotene accumulated not only in the leaves and stems, as it normally did, but also in the rice kernels themselves.
Potrykus and Beyer did not want to commercialize their invention, so they worked to legally secure Golden Rice as a humanitarian project. They licensed Golden Rice to Syngenta (formerly Zeneca), a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Basel, Switzerland.
Then they established a “Golden Rice Humanitarian Board” to oversee the development of the technology and grant noncommercial licenses to public research institutes. These national and international research organizations would adapt Golden Rice to local environmental and climate conditions.
A legal assessment of Golden Rice in 2000 showed that it contained material protected by more than 70 patents. However, many of the patents do not apply in developing countries, which are the target markets for Golden Rice.
Critics of Golden Rice include the environmental group Greenpeace, which staged public protests against the new rice variety. Greenpeace claimed that the amount of beta-carotene in Golden Rice was so small that one would need to consume massive quantities of rice to reach an effective dose. While it can be difficult to measure the ingestion of vitamins, a team of scientists from Syngenta in 2005 introduced Golden Rice 2, which produced increased levels of beta-carotene by substituting the original daffodil genes with corn genes.
Aiming to spread the use of Golden Rice throughout Asia, the International Rice Research Institute got a license for non-commercial use from the Golden Rice project in 2001. In the US, the Rockefeller Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supported the Golden Rice project at IRRI.
On July 21, 2021, the Philippines became the first country in the world to approve the commercial production of genetically modified Golden Rice. The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry issued the permit for the commercial propagation of this new rice variety to Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), which owns the license to Golden Rice. This is part of the Healthier Rice Project carried out by DA-PhilRice in partnership with IRRI.
Golden Rice will certainly help poor malnourished children suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Health experts said almost half of young Filipino children, and 70 percent of schoolchildren, do not meet the estimated average requirements for vitamin A. The most common symptom of vitamin A deficiency in young children and pregnant women is an eye condition called xerophthalmia, which is the inability to see in low light. This can lead to blindness if not treated.
Golden Rice may seem like a realistic solution to combat vitamin A deficiency in the country. But the critical question is, do Filipino farmers want to plant this new rice variety?