Those who were born in post-independence young India remember the great food security challenges the country faced in the 50s and 60s. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, decided to act quickly on the agricultural crisis and gave the green signal to M.S. Swaminathan and Norman Borlaug to revolutionise the food crop sector.

Norman Borlaug—who had accomplished great agricultural success in Mexico—developed genetically modified rice and wheat varieties which were highly disease tolerant and possessed high yielding capacity. 

As a direct result of this, India managed to escape the famines and turned into an agricultural giant, with agricultural production levels that were sufficient for the entire population. 

Today, we produce enough for our population and export these crop varieties as well. But our problems are far from over. Vitamin and protein deficiency still hamper the development of our population, especially the marginalized and poor.

Conquering poverty requires more than just the stock market. We need agricultural solutions that will help the poor as well as benefit the farmers. 

New development in crop technologies has enabled the birth of crop varieties that address this issue. One of them is the Golden Rice.

Golden rice grains compared to white rice grains. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On March 16, Health Canada—the department of the government of Canada with responsibility for national public health—approved the genetically engineered Golden Rice as safe for human consumption. Health Canada is extremely strict in its regulations and won’t legalize a crop until its scientifically proven to be safe; the approval comes after a robust scientific assessment done by scientists with expertise in molecular biology, microbiology, toxicology, chemistry, and nutrition. 

The assessment complied with scientific principles approved internationally by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the regulatory bodies in the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Japan. Its results showed that Golden Rice had the same nutritional property as other commercially available rice varieties, except for the increased provitamin A levels. Further, it displayed no new risk to human health and has no potential to create or amplify allergies.

This has huge implications for the rest of the world, where Golden Rice can be vital resource in tackling vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and malnutrition. 

VAD is a silent killer. Children even with milder signs of VAD have higher risk of morbidity and mortality. VAD causes more than 250,000 children to go blind in Asia each year; 52,500 such cases per year are from India. 250 million preschool children around the world are VAD.

Though administration of medicinal doses to children is the most common method of tackling VAD, the Indian government believes that a more holistic approach is required to eliminate it. In his detailed assessment of VAD in India titled “National control programme against nutritional blindness due to vitamin A deficiency: Current status & future strategy”, K Vijayaraghavan of the National Institute of Nutrition details the current strategies for tackling VAD in India. “The goal is to implement food based and horticulture-based interventions harmonizing with public health measures, food fortification and capacity building of functionaries for elimination of VAD”, explains the paper.

This is where the Golden Rice could prove to be the most lethal arsenal against VAD.

Golden Rice, also known as Provitamin A Biofortified Rice Event GR2E, has strikingly higher levels of Provitamin A than other commercially available rice varieties. The name may have been derived from its golden yellow colour, but it is certainly more valuable to our food security than actual gold.

Being a powerful antioxidant, Vitamin A plays a key role in growth, reproduction, eyesight and immune system health. Vitamin A deficiency is more prevalent in developing countries, where it causes preventable childhood blindness and amplifies the risk of death from other common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea. Golden Rice can certainly reduce the magnitude and frequency of Vitamin A deficiency as it acts as a Vitamin A supplement. The rice can thus act as a preventive element against death and diseases resulting out of Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

However, GM crops such as Golden Rice face constant opposition from ant-GM crusaders who accuse these crops of being dangerous to human health. 

The claims of anti-GM groups are false and baseless. Particularly, their accusations on Golden Rice lack scientific credibility, besides acting as a major hurdle in the fight against malnutrition and global food insecurity. Unlike Health Canada’s robust scientific assessment, the claims of anti-GM advocacy groups fall short of credibility, as they have been in the past. The approval of Golden Rice by Health Canada is a lethal blow to one of the many myths that are propagated by anti-GM activists. 

India, like its neighbours China and Bangladesh, should seize the momentum and declare Golden Rice safe for consumption. Given the acute need to tackle VAD and the multiple benefits that Golden Rice offers, India should not wait any further in utilizing a crop variety that has been tried, tested, and approved by leading scientists.

Vijay Jayaraj

Vijay Jayaraj is a consultant with IRADe New Delhi and specializes in Environmental issues, especially climate change and its impact on ecosystem. He has a Masters from University of East Anglia, UK and has worked as a Researcher at University of British Columbia, Canada.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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