by Sally Brooks, Biosafety project convenor

Biofortified crops, for example rice enriched with vitamin A, are claimed as a way of getting vital extra nutrition to poor people. They’ve also been a topic of hot debate for several years. In a new development in the story of these crops, last week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced nearly US$20 million in new grants for Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus. The aim of both projects is to develop nutritionally enhanced (‘biofortified’) staple crops enriched with pro-vitamin A, and make these available to smallholder farmers and poor consumers in Asia and Africa.

Research on genetically engineered ‘Golden Rice’ has been a work-in-progress since the early 1990s. Back then, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer secured funding from the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Programme on Rice Biotechnology. Its premature launch in 2000 as a magic bullet in the global battle against vitamin A deficiency and child blindness generated excitement and criticism in equal measure. However, in the years that followed, important questions about the technical feasibility, nutritional efficacy and pro-poor credentials of the project have been overshadowed by an increasingly polarised debate ‘for and against’ GM crops. Scientific and policy issues that should have been openly shared and publicly discussed got lost amid overblown claims that, if it wasn’t for ‘burdensome’ regulations and ‘irrational’ opposition, Golden Rice would already be in farmers’ fields.

With the announcement of a new partnership to “further develop and evaluate” Golden Rice, hopefully this will change. The partners include the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), national rice research institutes in the Philippines and Bangladesh (PhilRice and BRRI) and Helen Keller International, known for its work in designing, implementing, and testing vitamin A delivery programmes worldwide.

Nancy Haselow, HKI vice president and regional director for Asia-Pacific, said this month: “we welcome the opportunity to see if Golden Rice is efficacious and can fill the gap in access to adequate vitamin A for all vulnerable groups in a sustainable way”. With this new research, there’s hope for a clearer understanding of how much these crops can do for farmers and consumers worldwide.

Further reading

Brooks, S. (2011) ‘Is International Agricultural Research a Global Public Good? The Case of Rice Biofortification’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 38 (1) 67 – 80

Brooks, S (2010) Rice Biofortification: Lessons for Global Science and Development, London: Earthscan