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Humans have been genetically modifying crops since agriculture was invented thousands of years ago. But conventional breeding takes multiple generations and cannot be used to improve only one specific trait. Genetic engineering and gene editing are precise technologies that can streamline the breeding process and introduce rice traits that cannot be significantly improved through conventional breeding.

Biofortification is the process of improving the nutritional quality of food crops. This can be achieved through agronomic practices, conventional breeding or more advanced biotechnology tools such as genetic engineering and genome editing. These advanced techniques are used for biofortification when micronutrient content cannot be significantly increased through conventional practices.

The International Rice Genebank at IRRI hosts the largest and most diverse collection of rice genetic material in the world, with over 120,000 unique rice accessions. This enables IRRI scientists to screen for nutrition-enhancing traits in rice, and identify the most appropriate biofortification method to improve these traits.

IRRI’s technical expertise enables the exploration of multiple pathways to biofortification. Biofortified rice varieties in the early stages of research include:

  • Stacked beta-carotene, iron and zinc lines
  • Gene-edited high zinc rice
  • High Folate rice
  • High Lysine rice
  • High Leucine rice
  • Non-GM High iron rice

High Iron and Zinc Rice

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is developing high-iron and high-zinc rice through transgenic and conventional breeding approaches as a novel, food-based approach to complement current interventions that aim to alleviate iron and zinc deficiencies. In 2015, IRRI scientists and collaborators were successful in developing a proof of concept— a product delivering the desired levels of iron and zinc biofortification in milled rice.

Globally, more than 1.6 billion people are anemic. Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) can affect productivity and cause serious health consequences, including impaired cognitive development in children, a weakened immune system, and increased risk of morbidity. Similarly, zinc deficiency is a major cause of stunting among children, affecting about 165 million children under the age of five who are at risk of compromised cognitive development and physical capability (WHO, 2016).

Strategies for reducing IDA and zinc deficiency
  • Dietary diversification - The ideal way to ensure sufficient iron and zinc intake is to consume a diverse diet that includes good sources of iron and zinc.
  • Supplementation - Iron and zinc pill or syrups.

  • Food fortification - Fortified food items include rice, flour, cereal, or noodles.

  • Crop biofortification - Improving the nutritional quality of food crops offers a sustainable approach particularly to people with limited access to other dietary interventions.


IRRI’s biosafety stewardship program ensures that the organization’s biotechnology initiatives and other research programs comply with national regulatory procedures and internationally recognized protocols at all stages of the agricultural product life cycle.

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