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The Many Colors of Biofortification: Orange Maize Today, Golden Rice Tomorrow
By: Zoë Womack, Policy and Research Intern
To honor the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates, this blog is the first in a series on biofortification, featuring global scientific advancements and their potential for improving lives and nutrition around the world.
Staple crops such as rice, maize, and wheat are the primary source of calories for hundreds of millions of people. While these crops are excellent sources of energy, they lack some essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin A. Nutrient deficiencies, especially in childhood, have devastating, even lethal consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that every year 250,000-500,000 children go blind as a result of a lack of vitamin A in their diets. Vitamin A deficiency also weakens their immune system and half of these children die within a year of losing their eyesight.
Fortification of foods such as milk, or even salt, during the production process has been practiced for generations. But for millions of people struggling with hunger and poverty, fortified processed foods are unavailable and/or unaffordable. Biofortification increases the nutritional quality of crops during plant growth, instead of through manual processing. Biofortified seeds can be produced using traditional plant breeding methods or with modern biotechnology. People who plant biofortified seeds are able to grow fortified food for themselves and obtain the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients they need to survive and thrive.
It All Begins with Vitamin A
Vitamin A plays a vital role in the visual system, growth, development, and immune systems. Therefore, it’s needed during childhood and pregnancy. Biofortified maize and rice have potential to increase the levels of vitamin A in staple crops globally.
Orange Maize has been biofortified with vitamin A, and has already been adopted by a few countries for use. This project was HarvestPlus funded, and led by plant geneticist Torbert Rocheford at Purdue’s Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE). The crop was created using conventional breeding practices. An orange maize in Thailand that had naturally high amounts of carotenoids was combined with high-yielding maize that contained insufficient levels of vitamin A. The result was a new variety of orange maize grown that had three times as much vitamin A as the traditional variety and still provided high yields.
This orange maize was released in Zambia in 2012, and its consumer acceptance has been extremely positive. More than 10,000 farming households in Africa now know about orange maize, and next steps for HarvestPlus include continuing programs in Zambia and Zimbabwe and beginning a program in Ethiopia.
Biofortified rice is the next staple crop to engage in testing trials. Golden Rice is fortified with beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A as it is needed. It was invented by Professor Ingo Potrykus, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, using modern genetic modification techniques instead of conventional breeding methods. Natural gene strands in rice do not contain significant amounts of beta carotene making it impossible to introduce a beta carotene gene to rice without genetic engineering. Professor Potrykus used genes from maize and common soil organisms to produce beta carotene in the rice grain.
Golden Rice has the potential to greatly impact the future since one cup of rice could supply up to 50 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vitamin A for adults. These were results from studies in 2012; however, scientists are still working on confined field tests and multi-location field trails. Some of these trials have been delayed due to regulatory uncertainty and attacks on GMOs by organizations such as Greenpeace.
Recently, more than 100 Nobel laureates have signed a letter encouraging Greenpeace to end its efforts opposing GMOs, specifically Golden Rice. They speak for the science community by urging Greenpeace to understand that their position is “damaging and anti-science.”
Golden Rice and Orange Maize are just two examples of how biofortification can improve nutrition and save lives. Efforts to biofortify other crops, such as sorghum, are also underway. Hunger advocate and activist Roger Thurow, author of The First 1,000 Days, said recently, “We need to use all the arrows in our quiver to end malnutrition.” For millions of hungry and malnourished people, biofortification is one of the most important arrows we have available.