Rice - golden rice

Millions of dollars are being spent on plant breeding programmes to develop a special variety of rice, known as 'golden rice'. This genetically modified strain was developed to tackle vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries. Often heralded as a miracle solution, some experts question its role.

Vitamin A deficiency

Carotene is a compound found in plants. Although it gives carrots their orange colour it is also found in all red, yellow and green parts of plants. It is converted in the body to vitamin A. A deficiency in this vitamin leads to decreased immunity to diseases and may cause blindness in young children.

Photo of brightly coloured rice packages on a store shelf.
Different varieties of rice for sale at a store.

Rice is a major staple crop in South Asia. It normally contains very small amounts of carotene in its unprocessed state, but virtually none after it has been refined and the outer husk removed. Rice is eaten by many people who are vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency. Scientists believe that breeding rice to provide more vitamin A could overcome this problem.

Using techniques of genetic modification, genes have been taken from daffodils and bacteria and have been introduced into the DNA of rice, to give it high levels of beta-carotene. The resulting rice grains are a yellow colour hence its name 'golden rice' or 'yellow rice'. Once eaten, the beta-carotene is converted in the body to vitamin A. The first golden rice harvest and field trials took place in September 2004 in the United States; field trials in Asia will follow in 2005.

The controversy

Golden rice is a controversial solution both because it is a genetically modified crop, and because there is some doubt whether it will resolve the real problem of vitamin A related blindness.

Much more rice would need to be eaten to provide enough vitamin A than the recommended daily intake of rice itself. Improving nutrition as a whole may be a better option. Increasing the intake of green leafy vegetables and fruits adds a wider variety of nutrients to the diet. Such an approach has been successful through encouraging home gardens in Bangladesh.

Many nutritionists suggest that there is no miracle cure to tackling hunger and improving nutrition. Scientific work must go hand-in-hand with political and economic changes.

For both supporters and opponents of genetic modification, golden rice is an important test case of potential public benefits and harm. Its public debut will be keenly watched.