Rice being fortified for healthier Filipinos

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Plant breeders at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), the country’s lead in rice research and development, are developing micronutrient-rich varieties to help lessen hidden hunger, the country’s leading nutritional problem.

During the recent 7th National Biotechnology Week, Dr. Antonio A. Alfonso, director of the Crop Biotechnology Center of the Department of Agriculture, said that rice fortified with iron, zinc, and beta carotene are in the pipeline to help reduce the mortality and morbidity rates caused by micronutrient deficiencies.

“We have replicated field trials of iron and zinc-rich rice in the experimental fields of PhilRice and in the International Rice Research Institute. With biofortification, we expect that our staple food will soon contain 50-80 percent more of iron and zinc,” the 2008 Outstanding Young Scientist said.

Alfonso said biofortification or the method of breeding crops to increase their nutritional value is a sustainable and effective way of fighting hidden hunger as it facilitates easy and fast access to better nutrition.

“Access is crucial in reducing micronutrient deficiency because it has no visible signs, making the ‘sufferer’ unaware of his condition. Because rice is a daily main component of our diet, more people especially in the rural areas, will have immediate and cheaper source of these micronutrients,” he explained.

Alfonso noted that 1.7 million Filipino children, mostly in the remote areas, suffer from vitamin A deficiency while 1 in every 10 pregnant women lacks vitamin A. Globally, Alfonso said vitamin A deficiency causes the death of 670,000 children every year while 350,000 suffer from blindness.

“These health conditions, especially of children, drive us to improve our rice varieties so they could contain the Golden Rice trait, or the ability of rice to produce high amount of beta-carotene in its grain. Let’s note that the body only converts beta-carotene into vitamin A only when needed,” he stressed.

In developing the beta-carotene-rich rice, Alfonso stressed that the variety is also being evaluated to ensure that it will be safe for health and to the environment.

“Golden Rice will only be available to the market if studies would prove its effectiveness in improving the vitamin A status of the consumers. Safety and efficacy are the main requirements for this new type of rice to be released,” he said.

Should Golden Rice be released, the plant breeder said that its seeds could be repeatedly used by farmers and its cost will be similar to other rice varieties as the technology had been donated for public good. He also added that Golden Rice will be cultivated just like the popular and ordinary rice being grown by the farmers.(PhilRICE)

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