Addressing the Malnutrition Problem in Disadvantaged Communities
During the first three decades of the Green Revolution, Dr. Borlaug and other hunger fighters put great effort into increasing world food production. This was necessary as the famines were staring agricultural scientists and world leaders in the face. Having achieved breakthroughs in increasing food production, it became evident that more attention was needed to address the problems of malnutrition. Malnutrition among the poor communities is caused by deficiencies of micronutrients in their diets.
During the 1990s, CGIAR organized the HarvestPlus program to promote the development of crop varieties with dense micronutrients for alleviating malnutrition. The HarvestPlus team was awarded the World Food Prize in 2016 for developing and promoting crop varieties with a high density of micronutrients. The two World Food Prize awardees this year have been at the forefront of studying the problem of malnutrition in disadvantaged populations.
Rice, which feeds half of the world’s population, does not contain the micronutrient vitamin A. As a result, poor rice consumers, who derive a large proportion of their calories from rice, suffer from vitamin A deficiency. At least 400 million people throughout the world are vitamin A deficient. Of those, 300 million are young children. As many as three million children die annually as a result of health problems caused by vitamin A deficiency. Four million people with vitamin A deficiency suffer from clinical eye problems and are also at risk for respiratory diseases and diarrhea.
Realizing the extent of this problem, the Rockefeller Foundation asked Swiss scientist Dr. Ingo Potrykus to explore the possibility of developing vitamin A rice and supported his research. His team developed “golden rice“ by introducing two genes, one from an ornamental plant daffodil and another from a bacterium, into a rice variety. The element responsible for the golden color also provides Vitamin A in the human diet. Dr. Potrykus asked the International Rice Research Institute to improve golden rice further. After several years of breeding and regulatory testing, golden rice received three successive food safety evaluations in 2018 from three leading regulatory agencies: Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Health Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration. It is now undergoing regulatory assessment in the Philippines and Bangladesh.
The journey of golden rice has been unexpectedly long, but its expanding usage can help alleviate malnutrition for millions of people. Let us hope it will be made available to those who need it most.