Humans have been modifying crops for favorable traits since agriculture was invented thousands of years ago. But conventional breeding takes multiple generations and cannot be used to improve on only one specific trait. Genetic engineering and genome 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 biotechnology-based approaches like genetic engineering and genome editing.
Biofortification of staple crops such as rice is intended as a sustainable, cost-effective and food-based means of delivering target micronutrients to populations who do not have access to or cannot afford diverse diets and other existing interventions such as fortified foods and supplementation.
It is identified by the Copenhagen Consensus as one of the highest value-for-money interventions for micronutrient deficiency: gaining 17 USD worth of benefits for every 1 USD spent.
Healthier Rice at IRRI
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 extensive genetic resources and 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
Golden Rice, named for the golden color of the beta-carotene added through genetic modification, is currently undergoing regulatory review in the Philippines and Bangladesh. It has been assessed to be as safe as ordinary rice, with the added benefit of beta-carotene in its grains by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), Health Canada, the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), and the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI).
Despite the success of existing nutrition interventions, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) continues to be a leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and increased risk of infection for over 190 million children worldwide.
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).
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.
Rice Today articles
- Philippines approves Golden Rice for direct use as food and feed, or for processing
- Compositional analysis shows beta-carotene biofortified Golden rice is safe and has potential to address Vitamin A deficiency
- Golden Rice meets food safety standards in three global leading regulatory agencies
- Value chains and policy work are crucial to the adoption of Golden Rice and other biofortified genetically modified crops