An expert from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) says Golden Rice is a potential new food-based approach to help fight vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a form of hidden hunger.
Dr. Violeta Villegas, Golden Rice Project Coordinator for IRRI, added that hidden hunger is a pervasive and persistent problem affecting more than two billion people globally.
“As a breeder myself, it gives me pride and joy to be part of a humanitarian project that seeks to address a major public health problem,” Villegas noted.
Aside from IRRI, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) area also involved in pushing for increased rice production and food security.
Searca is also supporting the research on Golden Rice and other rice varieties that are higher-fielding, nutritious and resistant to flooding and drought.
An estimated 190 million children and 19 million pregnant women are affected by VAD globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO.)
If one is deficient in vitamin A, the immune system is affected, making them vulnerable to certain diseases like measles and weak eyesight, especially among pre-school children.
“They can go blind. Some may die because they become more susceptible to certain diseases,” Villegas warned.
Lactating mothers also need vitamin A because their milk is their babies’ primary source of nutrition, she added.
“I always say yes, there are interventions like diversifying diet, breast-feeding, fortification and so on. They’re working, but the fact remains that there’s still a sizable portion of our population not reached by these interventions,” Villegas explained.
Villegas explained that there remain sectors of society that are not reached by the current interventions, those who live in far-flung barangays (villages), but they eat rice three times a day, sometimes more, so fortifying rice can indeed help.
“It will be very good if there will be an additional tool in our kit, in our toolbox, to complement the existing interventions,” she said.
Golden Rice is an example of how agriculture and nutrition can work together to fight VAD.
Asked how soon Golden Rice will be allowed for cultivation, she replied: “Our answer is, when we get all the approvals, we will share them immediately. I cannot say the year because we are following the regulatory system of the Philippines that prescribes all the steps that we have to take. Like you do a series of field tests, you do confined tests, you do multilocation trials to test adaptability of this new variety. You have to follow them.”
Currently, Golden Rice is in the confined field trials stage. Multilocation trials will follow and later on, the application for propagation or cultivation will have to be filed.
“While we are doing these trials, we are also generating biosafety data, required for food, feed and processing approval,” Villegas said.
Another step, she added, is that upon getting food and feed approval, a reputable independent organization will do the bio-efficacy trial.
They will not do this until Golden Rice gets the food approval, Villegas stressed.
“We can predict when we can get all the data but getting the approval is the ultimate ‘diploma’ that we have to secure before we can go public,” she concluded.