After 18 years of research and adhering to regulatory requirements, Golden Rice, renamed as Malusog Rice, made its first appearance in public like a debutante.
The cooked yellow rice was served during the “Unang Ani ng Golden Rice: Isang Pasasalamat,” a thanksgiving and celebration that was tended by the research agencies that developed the biotech product, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) of the Department of Agriculture and the Los Baños-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), on November 24.
The two agencies treated their partners and the stakeholders in a “taste test” of sorts of the much awaited rice variety with beta carotene that produces vitamin A when eaten.
“It tastes like ordinary rice. But it is more nutritious [with beta carotene],” was the reaction of everybody, including Dr. Howarth Bois, a recipient of the 2016 World Food Prize who pioneered the concept of biofortification and founded HarvestPlus in 2003.
As expected, there would be no change in the form and taste of the rice compared to common rice, except for its improved nutritional value to highlight its benefit to its target beneficiaries—the children and adults who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and prevent death.
The no change in taste also gives the message that Malusog Rice is safe, as mentioned by a farmer in a video during the event
Its color yellow came from the beta-carotene that was engineered into its gene.
It should be noted that the Philippines was the first country to approve the commercial planting of the rice variety after the government approved it in July 2021.
The other countries doing researches to adapt it in their respective countries are Bangladesh and Indonesia.
The Malusog Rice that was served during the event was harvested from Samar this wet cropping season in September.
Dr. Ronan Zagado, program leader of PhilRice Golden Rice Program Management Office, told the event that Golden Rice was registered in the Philippines by the National Seed Industry Council as Malusog Rice.
He said that for the beneficiaries to know more about the product they should be given a clear idea of what it can offer. Thus, PhilRice did a survey that produced “Malusog Rice” as the acceptable brand name for the seeds and grains
“It built a strong brand name that identified the product and captured our aspiration of better nutrition,” Zagado said, adding that “golden” sounds expensive.
“It highlighted the health and nutritional benefits of [Malusog Rice] when consumed,” he pointed out.
The tagline “Bawat butil puno ng sustansya [Each grain is full of nutrients],” Zagado explained, signified better nutrition.
Ma. Aileen A. Garcia, senior manager of Program Management and Stakeholder Advocacy of Healthier Rice at IRRI, acknowledged that the success of Malusog Rice cannot be achieved without the participation of their partners and stakeholders
“We would like to call [Malusog Rice] as the child born out of the marriage of agriculture and nutrition…and numerous other parents, uncles, cousins who have raised it,” Garcia said.
She said the overwhelming amount of support came from each stages of the project—from farmers, farmer-leaders, local government units (LGUs), nutritionists, women, scientists, coalition of experts, policy-makers, student organizations, private groups and Nobel laureates.
The hybrid event recognized those who attended by Zoom. Agriculturists from Urdaneta City in Pangasinan and Piddig, Ilocos Norte, expressed their respective LGUs’ support to the technology online.
Dr. Mario Capanzana, former Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology, spoke about how the agency collaborated with the researchers through technical evaluation of the rice being researched.
Continue R&D journey
Dr. John C. de Leon, executive director of DA PhilRice, said the first harvest of Malusog Rice was the first step toward the long term goal of meeting the rice requirement of all vitamin-A deficient households in the Philippines.
“This pilot scale deployment was also the continuation of our R&D journey. We intend to adjust and iterate our strategy based on emerging priorities and challenges we observe on the ground,” de Leon said.
The PhilRice chief said they are “committed” to provide the seeds that meet the certification standards and continue to capacitate their partners to be able “to produce seeds of the highest quality.
In creating demand, he said they have listened to their stakeholders to be able to have the right perspective of how nutritious rice varieties like Malusog Rice can make an impact.
At the same time, he said the enabling environment must be present “at all levels” from the national to the barangays to be able to ensure the program’s sustainability and create local champions to help build trust.
Commercial production by 2024
Ten regions across country were identified as sights for seed and grain production.
On the other hand, based on a range of criteria, including malnutrition status, seven provinces were identified as initial areas for the Mausog Rice distribution.
Zagado told the Business Mirror at the sidelines of the event that commercial production of Malusog Rice may be possible by the latter part 2024.
“By then we hope to have enough supply of seeds. For now we are still in pilot-scale production for seed expansion. The limited milled grains we have from the harvests are for promotion and advocacy,” he pointed out.
He added that in the meantime, PhilRice will be doing promotion and initial or test marketing of milled rice.
“We intend to develop more varieties of Malusog Rice in the background of popular and high-yielding varieties preferred by farmers and consumers,” he said
He earlier announced during his presentation that some areas are able to produce big volumes of the rice, including the 7.8 tons/hectare harvest in Maguindanao.
It should be noted that the Golden Rice Project was introduced in 1999. Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer engineered it from normal rice to help improve human health, according to Embryo Project Encyclopedia. It produces beta-carotene, a molecule that becomes vitamin A when metabolized by humans.
Golden Rice is a not-for-profit project where no individual, nor organization involved with its development, has any financial interest in the outcome, the Golden Rice Project web site said.
From the Potrykus-Beyer research, scientists have been trying to adopt the healthy rice variety to the respective countries, including the Philippines.
Dr. Antonio Alfonso, the current Regulatory and Stewardship manager at Corteva Agriscience, was the “first father” of Malusog Rice.
He was the Golden Rice Project Leader at PhilRice when he started with the research on the project in 2004—or 18 years ago—fresh from his doctoral studies at Cornell University in the US.
PhilRice has been working with IRRI to develop the variety for Philippine consumption.
Alfonso, told the BusinessMirror in an interview on November 24, explained that IRRI would do the crosses, the hybridization, to transfer the trait from the donor Golden Rice variety to Philippine variety.
“The PhilRice team’s responsibility was to grow them in the screenhouse to select the best variety. Actually IRRI was doing the same, so it was simultaneous at two locations. We were comparing our data which among these candidate breeding lines would be suitable for advancing to the next generation,” he said.
From the selected breeding line, the PhilRice and IRRI teams would eventually select the best candidate to be the variety that can be commercialized.
The first screenhouse planting at PhilRice outside of the laboratory was witnessed by this writer.
After the screenhouse, some lines that were selected were eventually planted for confined field test. Then those that performed well at this level were chosen for multi-location trials, Alfonso explained.
“That was a small part of the journey, but that was crucial because you need to identify the best lines to eventually reach the dining table,” he pointed out.
What are his thoughts after 18 years that his “baby” is now making its debut?
Alfonso said the past years were riddled with uncertainties.
“But early on we have confidence with the technology and we understand the goal of the project. There were technical issues we had to address, the regulatory process, the acceptance of the stakeholders, there those against the technology. We didn’t know if we would be able to address them. But we persisted,” he said.
“Finally we have this [Golden Rice or Malusog Rice] on our dining plate and enjoying it. Very soon it would reach the target sector of our society who would be benefiting most from Golden Rice,” the ever optimistic scientist said.
Lesson for the world
Dr. Russell Reike, Healthier Rice Program Lead at IRRI, emphasized that they would not be able “to get to this point without true partnerships of all the components of the program…. It honors the partnership between IRRI and PhilRice.”
He asked the stakeholders “to redouble our efforts. Let us reflect on the successes we have today but use that as energy for the future.”
Reinke noted that in the global context, the Golden Rice’s success in the Philippines “will be a lesson for the rest of the world.”
“I believe we have a bright future in front of of us…. The future of successful deployment of Golden Rice can be an example to the rest of the world to take this technology and move it further to reach the people in need, “ Reinke pointed out.