190 million children and 19 million pregnant women globally suffer debilitating vitamin A deficiency. Approximately 670,000 children die every year because they are vitamin A–deficient, with another 350,000 going blind– making it the leading cause of blindness amongst children. In pregnant women, vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness and increases the risk of death during or shortly after pregnancy.
Vitamin A deficiency is most severe in countries where people primarily consume micronutrient-poor staple foods and where other nutritious food is scarce, unavailable, or too expensive. Rice is an affordable, filling and popular food, but it is not a source of vitamin A. The enormous impact of the innate lack of Vitamin A in rice truly comes into context in view of the status of the crop in world food security: over half the world’s population (more than 3.5 billion people) eats rice every day, and depend on it for more than 20% of their daily calories. It is the predominant dietary energy source for 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific, 9 countries in North and South America and 8 countries in Africa, providing over 20 percent of the world’s total dietary energy supply.
In Southeast Asia, where rice is typically eaten every day, and often at every meal, over 90 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, more than in any other region. The most vulnerable children and women in hard-to-reach areas are often missed by existing interventions that can improve vitamin A status, including vitamin A supplementation, food fortification, dietary diversification, and promotion of optimal breastfeeding. For example, vitamin A supplementation programs that governments have implemented to control vitamin A deficiency among young children, still miss about 10–20 percent of some of the most vulnerable children.
Working with other leading agricultural research and nutrition organisations, the International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines Rice Research Institute and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (all long-term Generation Challenge Programme partners), have launched an initiative to develop Golden Rice varieties for the Philippines and Bangladesh as part of multi-pronged efforts to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice is a new type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A, which gives it a golden color.
Recent studies estimate that eating about one cup a day of Golden Rice could provide half of an adult’s vitamin A needs. Because rice is so widely produced and consumed, Golden Rice has the potential to reach many people, including those who do not have reliable access to or cannot afford other sources of vitamin A.
The initiative proposes to develop Golden Rice versions of existing rice varieties that are popular with local farmers and markets in the two countries – retaining the same seed cost, yield, pest resistance, grain qualities, cooking characteristics and taste. The researchers will also help assess the environmental and food safety of Golden Rice in keeping with internationally accepted guidelines. They will ascertain that the consumption of Golden Rice does indeed improve vitamin A status, partnering with Helen Keller International (HKI) for this purpose. Ultimately, the initiative will endeavour to design a sustainable delivery program to ensure that Golden Rice is acceptable and accessible in vitamin A deficient communities.
You can read more on this exciting project in the IRRI Golden rice project brief. For more information, contact: Dr Gerard Barry, Golden Rice Network Coordinator, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), +63 2 580 5600 (ext. 2467).