THINK ON THESE by Henrylito D. TacioFirst it was in Australia and New Zealand.  Canada followed suit.  Now, it’s in the United States.

We are talking here of the biotech cereal called golden rice.  In February, it passed the safety standards as set by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand.  A month later, the Health Canada likewise approved it after finding the same evaluation.  Last May, the US Food and Drug Administration has concurred.

These three national regulatory agencies reportedly carry out their assessments based on concepts and principles developed over more than two decades by international organizations like World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, both United Nations agencies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

“Each regulatory application that golden rice complete with national regulatory agencies takes us one step closer to bringing golden rice to the people who need it the most,” said Dr. Matthew Morell, director-general of the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“The rigorous safety standards observed by US FDA and other agencies provide a model for decision-making in all countries wishing to reap the benefits of golden rice.”

Golden rice is one of the nutrient-rich varieties developed by the Philippine Rice Institute (PhilRice) with support and assistance from IRRI.

Golden rice has been promoted as a staple that can reduce the incidence of malnutrition in the country.  “We’re still losing one generation after another to malnutrition and this just shouldn’t be happening anymore,” deplored Dr. Howard Bouis, a senior research fellow at Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

Golden rice is one possible solution to the problem.  About 89% of Filipinos consume rice on a daily basis.  Normally, rice plants produce beta-carotene in their green parts, but not the grain that people eat.  Golden rice is genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in the edible part of the plant.

Using genetic modification techniques, scientists developed golden rice using genes from corn and a common soil microorganism that together produce beta-carotene in the rice grain.

The beta-carotene 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.

The UN health agency estimates between 250,000 to 500,000 children who become blind each year because of a lack of vitamin A in their diets.  Not only that, about half of these children die within 12 months.

Vitamin A deficiency also depresses the immune system, raising overall mortality among children from other causes such as diarrhea, measles, and pneumonia. For these diseases the additional toll is estimated at 1 million preventable deaths a year, or around 2,700 per day, mostly among children younger than 5.

According to research published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” in 2009, daily consumption of a cup of rice – about 150 grams uncooked weight – could supply half of the Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin A for an adult.

Balancing cereal-diets with vegetables and animal products is one approach used in some developing countries to address the vitamin A-deficiency.  But results were frustrating.  Vegetables and animal products are expensive and seasonal, subject to spoilage and transport facilities.

In an email sent to Mark Lynas, an environmentalist and author of several books, Nina Fedoroff, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote: “Golden rice addresses a major nutritional problem in the most direct way imaginable, through a dietary staple.”

In 2005, scientists develop the current version of golden rice.  In the Philippines, the first generation golden rice was first tested in advanced field trials in IRRI in 2008. The second generation of selected varieties was field tested in the wet season of 2010. At the PhilRice, confined field trials of advanced lines were conducted in February to June 2011.

“The field trials are an important step in evaluating the performance of golden rice and to determine if it can be planted, grown, and harvested just like other popular rice varieties,” PhilRice said in a statement.  “These trials are also part of the safety assessment of golden rice.”

Farmers who produce organically grown crops currently co-exist with farmers who grow genetically modified crops and crops grown in conventional ways. ‘Co-existence’ is the practice of growing different kinds of crops, crops grown in different ways, or crops for different customers nearby or next to each other, while keeping the crops separate so they don’t mix and so their economic value is not affected.

“Golden rice could likewise co-exist with other crops, including other types of rice and rice grown in other ways such as in organic agriculture,” IRRI claims. “Golden rice is unlikely to impact organic agriculture through cross-pollination – also known as outcrossing or gene flow – for reasons that apply to all cultivated rice. Cross-pollination in rice is rare if plants are separated by a short distance of a few feet or meters and it can only occur when rice plants are flowering at the same time.

“Moreover, rice pollen is normally viable for only a few minutes after flowering. All these factors mean that organically-grown rice won’t usually cross-pollinate with another cultivated rice variety unless they are growing close together and flower at the same time,” IRRI adds.

Although golden rice was developed as a humanitarian tool, it met significant opposition from environmental and anti-globalization activists. Studies have found that golden rice poses no risk to human health, and multiple field tests have taken place with no adverse side-effects to participants.

In a feature which appeared in “The New York Times,” one of those interviewed made this very thought-provoking statement on Golden Rice.  “This technology can save lives,” he said. “But false fears can destroy it.”