NEW biotechnology crop products are being developed by national and international research institutes.

Among these are Golden Rice whose gene has been fortified with Vitamin A. It is under development at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The first generation Golden Rice was first tested in advanced field trials in IRRI in 2008, and second generation of selected varieties were field tested in the wet season of 2010. At PhilRice, confined field trials of advanced lines were conducted in February to June 2011.

IRRI describes Golden Rice as unique because it contains beta carotene, which gives the golden color to the cereal (as well as to fruits and vegetables like squash, papaya and carrots). The body converts beta carotene in Golden Rice to Vitamin A as needed.

Using genetic modification techniques, scientists developed Golden Rice using genes from maize and a common soil microorganism that together produce beta carotene in the rice grain. According to IRRI, conventional breeding programs could not be used to develop Golden Rice because rice varieties do not contain significant amounts of beta carotene.

Golden Rice was invented by Professor Ingo Potrykus, then of the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Research and development at Syngenta raised the beta carotene levels in Golden Rice in 2005. Syngenta, a Swiss corporation which markets seeds and pesticides, is involved in biotechnology and genomic research.

The giant seed company has arranged royalty-free access to the patents and intellectual property, held by several biotechnology companies, for a number of key technologies used in Golden Rice. This allows IRRI and others to develop Golden Rice varieties on a non-profit basis.

In April 2011, IRRI, PhilRice and the national rice research institute in Bangladesh began working with the Helen Keller International to evaluate Golden Rice as a potential tool to help address Vitamin A deficiency.

Women and children are the most vulnerable to Vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of childhood blindness and inability of the immune system to combat disease. Vitamin A deficiency affects up to 250 million preschool children worldwide, the World Health Organization reported in 2012. About 8.1 million children younger than 5 years old died of Vitamin A deficiency in 2009, according to the United Nations Children's Fund or Unicef. It is estimated that supplementation prevents one of three of these deaths, and that Vitamin A availability could prevent at least 1.9 million child deaths each year.

According to IRRI, Golden Rice is still under development and evaluation. It will only be made available to farmers and consumers if it is approved by national regulators and proved to reduce Vitamin A deficiency in community conditions – a process that is likely to take another two to three years. (SciPhil)