The Philippines has become the first country with a serious vitamin A deficiency problem to approve golden rice – which is genetically modified to prevent the deficiency – as safe for humans and animals to eat. According to a government report, it is as safe as conventional rice varieties.
“This is a victory for science, agriculture and all Filipinos,” member of congress Sharon Garin said in a statement.
In the Philippines, many children under 5 years old are severely vitamin A deficient, according to the World Health Organization, even though most of them are given vitamin A supplements. Vitamin A deficiency affects the immune system and makes children vulnerable to diseases, as well as leading to blindness.
Golden rice has been altered produce the orange pigment beta-carotene, which the body can turn into vitamin A. Because rice is a major part of the diet in the Philippines, if children eat golden rice instead of normal rice, it should substantially reduce vitamin A deficiency.
It could reduce deaths among children by up to a third, says Adrian Dubock of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, a non-profit group of experts who help with the development of golden rice. “This decision is huge,” says Dubock.
The Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute will now carry out taste tests as they seek approval for farmers to grow specific strains commercially.
Greenpeace, which has long campaigned against golden rice, has asked the agriculture department to overturn its decision. According to The Philippine Star, Greenpeace has said the approval is unwarranted due to incomplete data and a lack of transparency. These claims are rejected by Dubock.
Golden rice has already been approved as safe to eat in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. Bangladesh, which also has a vitamin A deficiency problem, is expected to make a decision soon.