Golden Rice is a genetically modified rice variety with the aim of making this plant capable of producing β-carotene.
β-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A; the intention was to use this food to address vitamin A deficiency in poorer populations.
As rice is the predominant food in these populations, the aim was to introduce this vitamin directly with the most widely used food.
Scientists were able to increase the concentration of vitamin E and add minerals such as iron and zinc.
Vitamin A deficiency (Vitamin A deficiency – VAD).
Vitamin A deficiency causes problems with the immune system and vision.
In Asia, which together with Africa is one of the most affected regions of the world, VAD is associated with poverty and is common among those who consume mainly rice to eat.
VAD is responsible for about 2 million deaths a year and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness.
In less severe cases it causes skeletal malformations, low vision and growth difficulties.
In these lands, vitamin A deficiency is a problem that mainly affects pregnant women and malnourished children already within the first 5 years of life.
Vitamin A is produced in our bodies from β-carotene found in fruit and vegetables.
White rice is only a part of the plant’s seed, the poorest nutritionally because it has been deprived of bran and germ.
What remains is mainly starch that is almost completely free of fat, protein and vitamins.
Development of Golden Rice
Research on Golden Rice began in 1982 by the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 2000, a study of an eight-year project by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer was published in Science.
The first field trials of Golden Rice Cultivar were conducted by the Agricultural Center’s Louisiana University Center in 2004.
Further trials were conducted in the Philippines and Taiwan, and Bangladesh.
Preliminary field test results showed that golden rice grown in the field produced 4 to 5 times more beta-carotene than golden rice grown in greenhouses.
In 2005, a team of Syngenta researchers produced Golden Rice 2 which produced 23 times more carotenoids than the original golden rice (up to 37 µg / g).
The synthesis of Golden Rice
β-carotene, like other molecules produced by metabolism, is the product of a long series of chemical reactions.
The final molecule is the product of a process that has gradually modified the initial molecule through the participation of different enzymes.
In the case of β-carotene, the starting point is a substance called GGDP, which is modified in four steps with the collaboration of as many enzymes.
In white rice grains, GGDP is present, but there is a lack of workers who transform it into carotene.
The idea that the researchers had was to include these missing workers and let them take care of the transformation.
This process, however, requires taking a gene from one organism and putting it into another, making Golden Rice a transgenic, GMO food.
Golden Rice issues and disputes
Being a GMO food brings with it a number of disputes related to the pros and cons of this type of food.
The reasons for no:
Several associations, among them Greenpeace, are against the use of Golden Rice because they consider it a “Trojan horse” that under the humanitarian pretext will open the way to the spread of other GMOs.
Moreover, they do not agree with the fact that the goodwill of some multinationals hides the true commercial nature of the operation, today the seeds are given for free, but tomorrow? A GMO plant remains the property of the multinational company that produces it.
The other reason is precisely the age-old question of genetically modified food, GMOs.
A 2017 study would highlight problems of low quantitative yields and the deterioration of Golden Rice’s crops.
For the Food and Drug Administration it has too low a β-carotene content: you would have to eat 3.75 kilos a day to receive an adequate amount.
The FDA has established that the beta-carotene content in GR2E ranges from 0.5 to 2.35 ug/g (micrograms per gram).
Just to give you an idea, in fresh non-GMO carrots β-carotene levels range from 13.8 to 49.3ug/g and in spinach on average 111ug/g.
Another problem is that the β-carotene content tends to decrease rapidly: after 3 weeks GR2E rice retains 60% of its original levels and after 10 weeks only 13%.
The explanation for this rapid degradation of β-carotene is attributed to its instability in the presence of oxygen. This – unless stored under vacuum – appears to be a problem not easily solved under normal storage conditions.
The reasons for the yes:
In contrast to the reasons for no, there are also many scholars and researchers who, instead, support the introduction of GMO rice as a crop in Asia and Africa.
Research conducted on a group of Chinese children has shown that β-carotene present in Golden Rice has been correctly converted into vitamin A by those involved (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009).
Of course, the diet must be varied and diversified and must also contain lipids, since vitamin A is fat-soluble and poorer populations are often forced to follow low-fat diets.
Other studies and research have shown that Golden Rice is not allergenic.
In June 2016, 110 Nobel Prize winners signed a letter urging Greenpeace and its supporters to abandon their campaign against GMOs and Golden Rice in particular.
The WHO (World Health Organisation) has stated that GMOs can be considered safe food because they are the most controlled and analysed.
The multinationals that hold the GMO rice patent have decided to issue free licences to encourage the sowing of Golden Rice to Asian and African farmers who have an annual income of less than $10,000 per year.