Golden Rice’s Appearance On Philippine Store Shelves And The Rise Of Biofortification

After decades in development, the Philippines became the first country on July 21st of this year to formally approve the commercial propagation of so-called golden rice. This is a rice strain that has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in its grains. This is the same compound that has made carrots so famous, and is a significant source of vitamin A.

Getting enough vitamin A is essential for not only children and newborns, but also for pregnant and lactating women. Currently, vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the primary cause of preventable childhood blindness and an important cause of infant mortality. While VAD is hardly the only major form of world-wide malnutrition, biofortification efforts like golden rice stand to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people around the globe by reducing the impact of VAD.

This raises questions of how effective initiatives like golden rice are likely to be, and whether biofortification of staple foods may become more common in the future, including in the US where fortification of foods has already become commonplace.

Making Plants Do Our Bidding

The domestication of plants is an ongoing process, started by humankind thousands of years ago when early farmers began to select for and cultivate specific plants with desirable traits. Over many generations of plants, this would gradually produce many domesticated crops with which we are familiar today. This artificial selection process increased the size of fruits and grains, made crops easier to process and consume, and increased yield.

The 20th century saw the rise of intensive agriculture, leading to the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ between the 1940s and 1970s during which world-wide agriculture saw major boosts in yields through technology: artificial fertilizer, improved  irrigation, and improved harvesting methods, but also a more concentrated artificial selection of plants.

The present-day gamma garden at the Institute of Radiation Breeding, Hitachiohmiya, Japan. (source)

Through mutation breeding – also known as mutagenic, or variation breeding, as well as mutagenesis – plant seeds are exposed to mutagenic sources of chemicals, radiation or enzymes to create genetic mutants. This introduces random changes to the genome of the plant’s cells, which may result in desirable changes on which can be selected.

Or not. Effectively this isn’t very different from what happens naturally, except much faster and at a much greater pace, and with unfortunately the same problem of undesirable mutations creeping up as well, which may cripple or kill an affected plant. Although this makes it a slow and laborious process, mutagenics is responsible for thousands of fruit and vegetable types we buy in the supermarket today.

Genetic modification can be contrasted with genetic engineering (GE), where the plant’s genome is directly edited in order to effect the desired alterations. The benefits of genetic engineering are obvious: changes appear instantly, and undesired mutations are avoided.

In addition, in GE plants, genetic abilities can be introduced that are otherwise foreign to the plant, such as producing beta-carotene in its grains. Even with mutagenic GM plants, such a major change is unlikely to ever occur spontaneously. In the current version of golden rice (GR2), the CrtI gene from Pantoea ananatis  and the phytoene synthase gene (Psy) from Zea mays (maize) are added to complete the beta-carotene pathway which is incomplete for the rice grain.

Gene construct used to generate Golden Rice. RB, T-DNA right border sequence; Glu, rice endosperm-specific glutelin promoter; CrtI, carotene desaturase from Pantoea ananas; tpSSU, pea ribulose bis-phosphate carboxylase small subunit transit peptide for chloroplast localisation; nos, nopaline synthase terminator; Psy, phytoene synthase gene from Narcissus pseudonarcissus (GR1) or Zea mays (GR2); Ubi1, maize polyubiquitin promoter; Pmi, phosphomannose isomerase gene from E. coli for positive selection (GR2); LB, T-DNA left border sequence. (Source)

Making The Case For Beta-Carotene In Rice Grains

Carotenes are generally considered to be an essential component in the ability of plants to photosynthesize. This explains why beta-carotene is a common component in leafy greens, such as kale, spinach and broccoli, as well as pumpkins and carrots. Unfortunately, none of these leafy greens, nor animal sources of vitamin A, are readily available in many parts of the world, or affordable if they are.

As noted by Saeed Akhtar et al., there are three ways to fix VAD: supplementation, fortification, and dietary diversification. Vitamin A supplementation is only somewhat effective because it relies on a government organization providing everyone in need with regular supplementation. Supplementation with vitamin A also becomes less efficient when one’s body has less fat because it is fat-soluble. Similarly, fortification requires that someone adds vitamin A (or beta-carotene) to the food stuffs, which presumes that government regulations on food fortification aren’t dodged, as Akhtar et al. found to be common in some areas.

Akhtar et al. came to the conclusion that a diversified, multi-prong approach is most likely to be effective here, as a weakness in one approach can can be covered by another approaches despite their weaknesses.

As golden rice does not require anything beyond the usual planting and harvesting of rice, it adds no extra burden, but merely raises the question of how effective it is. That is, how much vitamin A does a person who consumes a certain amount of golden rice convert from the beta-carotene in the rice grains?

A 2019 study by Swamy et al. found that in an analysis of golden rice versus regular rice as grown in the Philippines during 2015-2016, the only noticeable difference was the presence of beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids. Based on the levels of beta-carotene present, they calculated that 100 grams of raw golden rice could provide 30-40% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin A for children, and 11-13% for adult women. It’s not a complete solution by any means, but it helps.

Nobody Is Perfect

1920s advertisement for vitamin-enriched donuts. Not condoned by the FDA then, or now. (source)

Perhaps the most ironic thing about malnutrition is that merely living in a country where one has ready access to (fortified) food and supplements does not guarantee that one cannot suffer from especially micronutrient deficiencies. Scurvy due to lack of vitamin C has been making a resurgence in the US (Al-Dabagh, et al.), as well as France (Chalouhi et al.), and in Australia. Overcooking food and eating heavily processed fast food are common factors here.

This touches upon the psychological causes behind malnutrition, where people willingly refuse to eat a diet that contains the nutrients they need to consume in order to stay healthy. Who doesn’t know the image of the child who doesn’t want to eat their veggies, only to be told by their parents about the poor children in developing nations who would jump at the chance to eat their meal instead?

However, when in developing nations the main problem is the lack of a diverse diet that provides all of the required nutrients for a healthy development, how does one go about addressing malnutrition in developed countries? The struggle against malnutrition does appear to have many faces, for which a multitude of solutions would be required.

It should be noted here first and foremost that there is no evidence of a drop in the nutritional value of vegetables, beyond an increase in carbohydrates which can be attributed to the dilution effect caused by the increased yield. This is detailed by Robin J. Marles in a 2016 literature review article. Essentially, if one were to eat their vegetables and fruit, along with protein sources, no nutritional deficiency should exist in developed nations.

Easy And Hard Questions

When it comes to solving malnutrition in developing nations, it seems clear that biofortification efforts like golden rice can help reduce the health issues that come from lack of micronutrients. The effort required is also relatively low. With Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and now the US having declared golden rice safe for consumption, it seems that at least this biofortified food source may herald the beginning of the end of malnutrition in developing countries.

Even so, unhealthy diets are a global issue, according to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease (GDB) study, despite many of the people affected having ready access to the ingredients for such a healthy diet. A major issue in developed nations was for example the significant intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, along with the elevated intake of processed meat, sodium, and red meat.

It’s perhaps ironic that solving particular sources of malnutrition in developing nations is as straightforward as  changing to a crop like golden rice or other biofortifed foods, while in richer countries the problem is behavioral and much less obviously solved.

43 thoughts on “Golden Rice’s Appearance On Philippine Store Shelves And The Rise Of Biofortification

  1. “Although this makes it a slow and laborious process, mutagenics is responsible for thousands of fruit and vegetable types we buy in the supermarket today.”

    This is always the point to respond to those who are bothered by genetic engineering due to it being “unnatural” (now, being bothered by it due to patent encumbrance is *totally* different). Love responding to those comments with “Yeah, absolutely, I prefer brushing my teeth with 100% all-natural mint, made the way nature intended, by growing plants near a radioactive lump of cobalt-60.”

    1. Mutagenics is one thing, as the article said if you understood it at all, this process is for accelerating what could happen in nature. Mixing different plants until getting the desired result.

      You seem to have not understood what came after what you quoted. Genetic Engeneering is the process that is made in the lab to directly modify the DNA of the plant and get results that could never happen in nature.

      GE is what a lot of us (I include myself) do NOT agree with.

      I do not care about the first method, that method has been used for centuries by humans and has been used by nature since the begining of time.

      You seem to have mixed up the term mutagenics and genetic engeneering, which are xlearly explained in rhe article just below of what you qouted.

      1. Humm, no, it’s not been used for centuries by humans, it’s a process started in the 1950’s. For example the most widely used variety of durum wheat for Italian pasta, Grano Creso, was obtained by irradiation of wheat and selection of favourable strains. The same goes for thousands of “natural” cultivars.

        1. I think he was suggesting that mutations due to natural radiation have been being used by humans for centuries, which is *technically* true, I guess, but… not really. Point mutation is just *so* slow, and I’d bet point mutation by radiation is subdominant to replication errors in the species humans breed anyway.

          I mean, mutagenic gardening happens because you *will never* get those mutations naturally – saying “oh, it might happen *eventually*” is just nuts. Most of the mutations would *never* happen naturally – not in the way they *did* happen, anyway. And the idea that just randomly rewriting genomes by blasting them with gamma rays is somehow “more natural” than whole-gene transfer (the whole “mutagenic vs transgenic” argument) is just completely arbitrary.

        2. Mutagenics (mixing different types of corn plants) was used by aztecs..

          Carots were also grown like this.

          This technic has been used a lot.

          It happens in nature too, like the article said.

          1. Mutagenic breeding means using, well, *mutagens* – things that *induce* mutations. The development of corn from maize was almost certainly done by selective breeding, not mutagenics.

            It’s not a trivial difference either: with mutagenic breeding even if you see a trait you want, there’s a *lot* of other changes to the genome that you don’t see. I mean, you’re effectively machine-gunning the DNA (or chemically screwing around with it). The big difference between mutagenic breeding and what happens in nature is that because radiation damage is *not common*, if you get a beneficial point mutation, natural selection refines it *so fast* that there’s no way you’d get other random point mutations correlated with it, whereas with mutagenic breeding, you *do*.

            With selective breeding it’s obviously easier to control any unintended changes, because you get so few of them per generation. So, I mean, the people who say “selective breeding has been done for centuries, it’s safer” – they’re not *totally* crazy. The crazy part is suggesting that mutagenic breeding is somehow “safer” than genetic engineering. That’s just nuts – unintended changes happen way more with mutagenic breeding than controlled genetic engineering.

            My guess is the reason they contort themselves to argue it’s safe is because, well, *they are* – they’ve been around a while, so there must be a *reason* that it doesn’t cause problems. And there is – it’s because even if you *create* a variant via genetic engineering or mutagenic breeding, when you breed and propagate it *millions of times*, that propagation stabilizes the genome *really quickly*.

      2. If you think mutagenic breeding is what nature has been doing since the beginning of time and gene hopping across species (horizontal transfer) *isn’t*, I’m really confused. Transposons occur *way* more frequently than the mutation rates experienced by mutagenic breeding near the center. I mean, we could just take species and infect the bejeezus out of them with some creatively bred virus until some trait crosses if that’d make you feel better. Or go crazy with ticks, I guess. On a simpler level, cross breeding and hybridization have been done forever.

        We’ve been doing genetic engineering for centuries. Corn, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, cabbage, tomatoes: those are all engineered species. Mutagenic breeding and genetic engineering are just extreme tools.

        1. Let me clarify that a bit: genetic mutations due to background radiation are *not* a driving force in evolution for many (most?) species. They’re subdominant to errors from DNA replication and, of course, genetic variation from sexual reproduction (the Red Queen hypothesis). And atomic breeding amplifies that (subdominant) process a *million-fold*. It’s not “normal” or “natural.” This stuff would *never* happen normally, even though you could say “hey, it’s possible!”

          Horizontal gene transfer through genetic engineering is the same thing, although I would actually say it’s probably a bigger driving force in bacterial evolution than radiation-induced mutations! And genetic engineering is just a *massively* amplified version of that process.

          But you said “to directly modify the DNA of the plant and get results that could never happen in nature,” whereas mutagenic breding is “accelerating what could happen in nature.” That comparison is just completely wrong. Genetic transfer between species happens – the classic example is a pea aphid, which you could almost consider a fungus-animal hybrid!

          Does it happen frequently? No. But neither do radiation-induced genetic mutations! Saying that amplifying *one* rare process by a million is “natural” and amplifying a *different* rare process is not is just an arbitrary distinction.

  2. The main problem with such oriented, fast selection, is that focusing on one single trait (bigger, longer conservation …) often neglects as much important traits like:
    – adaptation to local environment
    – disease resistance
    – water needs (one kilo of rice needs about 4000 kilos (or liters, with beautiful H2O-based metric system) of water
    – fertilizer needs
    (…)

    so most of the time the result is globally not as good as a patiently developed selection that might not be yielding as much, but is perfectly adapted to the environment it grows, resists diseases, is frugal, and nutritive.

    It´s best to consider all factors, in this case, i´m afraid basic, mass-production ready, methan-releasing (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121021154455.htm) crop of rice was used to develop this particular strain of rice.
    There are varieties of rice that are even drought resistant, low-maintenance, pest resistant, but lower yield that would be very more suitable to (help) solving malnutrition problems.

      1. Alternately, too much adaptation to the local environment means the plant goes extinct when the local environment changes. There are many examples of plants and animals that grow only in one area and are therefor on the endangered species list.

    1. The idea is this is going to be grown and consumed mainly in countries where water is not an issue, and rice is the major component of the diet anyway. They are already growing and eating the rice with exactly those same issues, most of it grown by subsistence level farmers, who aren’t going to make it by switching to a lower yield variety.

    2. A possibility I don’t see discussed very often is a combination: splice in the weird thing that is too complex for selective breeding in a realistic timescale, then take the result and start selectively breeding that for yield, drought resistance, pest resistance…

      1. Because of time and because everyone is automatically doing it, golden rice is just one of the first.. Targeted gene editing is here for like 20years. Crispr as better and “programmable” way was published in 2012.
        Even the golden rice was carefully selected rice breed, then genetically modified, then reproduced & multiplied and selected viable seeds multiple times to make commercial scale planting possible.

        In few decades there probably will be multiple cultivars of golden rice made by selective breeding. Someone is probably doing it right now, but the selective breeding just take decades.

    3. Might want to understand the local geography FIRST.

      There are places in the world where flooding is a major problem. e.g. flooding from rivers (Yellow River in China), typhoons in S.E. Asia. Rice happens to be one of the few crops that can tolerate flooding without dying.

      FYI: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippines#Climate

      >Annual rainfall measures as much as 5,000 millimeters (200 in) in the mountainous east coast section but less than 1,000 millimeters (39 in) in some of the sheltered valleys.[246]

      >Sitting astride the typhoon belt, the islands experience 15–20 typhoons annually from July to October,[246] with around nineteen typhoons[247] entering the Philippine area of responsibility in a typical year and eight or nine making landfall.[248][249] Historically typhoons were sometimes referred to as baguios.[250] The wettest recorded typhoon to hit the Philippines dropped 2,210 millimeters (87 in) in Baguio from July 14 to 18, 1911.[251] The Philippines is highly exposed to climate change and is among the world’s ten countries that are most vulnerable to climate change risks.[252]

    4. China is trying to grow “Seawater Rice”. It is something that can tolerate high saline level in coastal regions that are not suitable for regular rice. The yield isn’t that good yet and it cost about 8X.

      https://www.independent.co.uk/news/rice-seawater-chinese-scientists-food-200-million-a8017971.html

      >The rice was grown in a field near the Yellow Sea coastal city of Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong province. 200 different types of the grain were planted to investigate which would grow best in salty conditions. Sea water was pumped into the fields, diluted and then channelled into the rice paddies. The scientists expected to produce 4.5 tonnes of rice per hectare but the crops exceeded expectations, in one case delivering up to 9.3 tonnes per hectare.

  3. All the spearmint in the US is descended from nuked plants from the just created atomic age in one of those “gardens”. A rabbit hole of info to look this up, in the 70’s as well.

    1. Sorry but the spearmint growing around my pond is the same weed that upstate NY previously grew and harvested in massive quantities in the wet areas of the eastern US long before the atomic age was conceived….

  4. Great article. Malnutrition is not just a developing country problem but a worldwide situation. Eating healthy is difficult and expensive these days. This is one step but will probably be attacked by the Anti-GMO crowd (don’t we have enough Anti-something groups?). One thing I didn’t see mentioned was the stability of the strain over many generations of seed. Some hybrids degenerate unless they are cultivated for the purpose of seed. That is what planting and detassiling of corn hybrids is for…. to create seed stock as well as new hybrids for the next planting. (If you have ever been on a farm you know about Detassiling Corn and “Walking Beans”) The other thing not mentioned is the risk or problems of cross pollination with other strains in nearby fields. This is one hazard of GMO corn. Elimination of illness or death by malnutrition should be the world’s primary concern besides global warming. Until it is eliminated we need to keep looking for our Vita-Meata-Vegimin.

        1. I mean, “evil” is really a bit of a stretch. Patents aren’t the end of the world – keep in mind it forces disclosure (which is *useful* in stuff like agriculture, as opposed to the uselessness of patent disclosures in software patents) *and* it’s time-limited, and in agriculture, 20 years is a totally reasonable timeframe, unlike in computer science where it might as well be infinite.

          If you want a counterargument as to why protecting seed varieties for a limited time is good rather than evil, it allows the people who *developed* the seed to watch and control changes in the genome as they’re produced, allowing for detecting and countering problems that show up.

          I mean, I’m guessing you *remember* the whole “evil Monsanto Supreme Court” thing, right? Thing is, that decision was in *2013* – and hey, guess what? That patent *expired* in 2014. And you know what Monsanto did after that?

          Poof, all license restrictions gone, exactly as it’s supposed to be. So long as the seed you have is patent-free (i.e. it’s not some more recent varietal), do whatever you want with it. Which is why, hey, guess what, you can now buy *generic* RR1 soybeans! And now you’ve got competition in that space!

          Compared to the relative evil of software patents (yuck) and infinite copyright (double-yuck), plant patents really are like an annoying itch more than anything else.

      1. Copyright? Monsanto won a Supreme Court case on preventing *patented* seed propagation. Lot of confusing stuff about this online, which isn’t surprising given the whole copyright/patent confusion anyway. I highly doubt someone would want to copyright a seed, since it only protects the implementation, not the idea, and so technically that copyright would go away like, immediately. (You also can’t technically patent a plant that reproduces sexually since it, well, changes, but you can get an equivalent protection in the US).

        https://plantlaw.com/2018/10/30/copyright-a-plant-variety/

        Golden rice has a license-free use exemption in third-world countries for use under $10K, so there’s no real issue there – and since it’s “patent-type” (limited life) protection rather than copyright (supposedly finite but actually infinite) eventually it’ll just become another plant.

        1. Monsanto’s patent suits were interesting. They won every single time that they sued someone for intentionally stealing their intellectual property, the instances were so glaring. And contrary to what my fellow activists were spouting, they had *never* sued a farmer for seeds accidentally drifting to and propagating in their field. But that is what they would have you believe, even to this day.

          The poster child in this regard was one Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who noticed some plants on his plot that had survived his recent spraying. He thought, “Hmmmm….” and harvested their seeds, and sure enough, they turned out to be of the Roundup Ready variety. So the case was emphatically *not* about Schmeiser being this unfortunate little guy getting bullied by Goliath for something that was out of his hands… he literally was found to have this stolen strain constituting some 80-90% of his field, and I don’t think you have to be a farmer to understand that something like that is going to be result of “accidental drift.”

          Indeed, the case essentially centered around property rights, as I understand it: Schmeiser contended that since the plants were on his property, then the plants *and* its seeds were his. Monsanto basically said, “Sure, fine… but the DNA inside those seeds is *ours*, it costs us hundreds of millions to get us to market, it will save you so much in chemical and fuel usage (not to mention the associated erosion, water runoff and CO2 thus mitigated), and dadgummit, you are beholden to pay us for our well-deserved license if you want to use it!” And they won.

          As easy as this is to verify, still do we have to suffer the B.S. being churned on this subject, culminating with a movie released just last year I think, promoting the bogus fairy tale and starring none other than screen legend Christopher Walken as Schmeiser. Damn it. To see one of your all-time favorite actors get sucked into that conspiracy rabbit hole so egregiously is pretty darn depressing. Neil Young was another lifelong hero to have gotten duped by that song and dance too :(

  5. A couple of points. First, the Philippines is the largest importer of rice in Asia. The country does not grow nearly enough rice for its population. Second, Arroyo pushed the simple adoption of brown rice years ago and no one was interested at all. There are some native strains with very local specific recipe uses, but the vast majority of Filipinos want nothing to do with anything but traditional white rice. It will be extremely hard to convince them to eat it all unless it is veeerry cheap or provided as NFA rice, local fast food chains can be convinced to get behind the cause, or just maybe they campaign and create an association between golden rice and it being grown locally. I’ve heard the anecdote that in other countries in Asia consumers look to see if their rice is grown in country and prefer those brands.

  6. “It’s perhaps ironic that solving particular sources of malnutrition in developing nations is as straightforward as changing to a crop like golden rice or other biofortifed foods, while in richer countries the problem is behavioral and much less obviously solved.” Maybe for the later problem we should modify the consumers rather than what is consumed.

    1. “Maybe for the later problem we should modify the consumers rather than what is consumed.”

      Good luck with that. Human behavior is difficult to change. You have to get people to want to change. It’s easier to just give them what they want.

      1. “Human behavior is difficult to change.”

        It’s not *that* hard to change. I mean, 30 to 40ish years later, you’ve got an entirely new crop of humans that have mostly forgotten all those crazy strong wacky opinions their parents have. Suddenly very few people care about music lyrics, video game violence, fluoride in water, enriched foods, etc. You just have to weather the stupidity.

        What you actually have to worry about are nutjob fearmongers and snake-oil salesmen, and that really *is* a problem you can deal with.

        1. Thanks so much for saying that. I know *I* sure changed. One minute I was “Marching Against Monsanto” lol, bullhorn in hand, and the next I was writing punk songs lambasting Greenpiece for campaigning so obstinately and disastrously against Goldenrice :P Not so funny, really… arguably a veritable crime against humanity.

          What brought me around? It wasn’t anyone mocking me, that’s for sure, but rather some people I trusted who gently pointed out the science, evidence, logic, and indeed, the ethics of the matter.

  7. The rice expected to be grown is crosses of Golden Rice 2, which has the GR2 gene from Maize. The higher beta-carotene levels give a richer colour, and I expect any accidental crossing would be visibly obvious. The initial research was done in a greenhouse in Switzerland to avoid cross-contamination. This rice has been grown continuously for testing.

    The whole careful research, testing and legal setup was clearly done in reaction against the unregulated crops developed and licensed “last century”.

  8. Finally! I remember when I first learned about Goldenrice and the literally millions of people — predominantly kids — who could have avoided blindness or death every single year while we were waiting for this brilliant solution to get approved and implemented. Granted, some of the delay had to do with the rigors of research and regulation, but undeniably all the fundraising-obsessed pseudo-activists like Greenpeace and other groups vandalizing the test fields, um, didn’t quite help move this relief forward, so say the ludicrously least. Blood on their hands, indeed. I was so pissed. So I wrote this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qukhLLxYCOs

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