Golden rice is a genetically modified rice crop that produces vitamin A. In this lesson, you will learn about how golden rice is made and how it can be used to prevent blindness and death in the developing world.
Introduction to GMOs and Golden Rice
In many areas of the world, rice is a staple food, especially for the poorest people. Since these people often do not have access to a variety of food sources, they suffer from many nutritional deficiencies. In particular, vitamin A deficiency is a major problem in many parts of South Asia and Africa. Golden rice is a type of rice that has been genetically modified by the addition of two genes so that it will produce beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Golden rice has the potential to save many lives and prevent blindness in children throughout the world, although it has not been widely adopted yet.
What Are GMOs?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are used in research and to produce food crops that are disease-, pest-, and herbicide-resistant, as well as crops that have increased nutritional value. Although no ill effects from consuming these products have ever been reported, there is still controversy over whether they should be produced and sold. Many groups oppose the production of GMO food crops because of fears over human health and damage to the environment.
Why Is Golden Rice Important?
Imagine that you're a poor child in Southeast Asia or Africa. Rice probably makes up a big part of your diet, and it's very likely that you may be deficient in several important vitamins. One important vitamin that is not typically found in rice is vitamin A. Vitamin A is a crucial nutrient found in yellow and orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, like Southeast Asia and Africa, people do not have access to these foods, and they suffer from vitamin A deficiencies. This causes blindness and immune system problems, particularly in children.
It's estimated that about one-third of the children under five in the world have a vitamin A deficiency and about 200 million children and 20 million pregnant women worldwide are affected right now. Over 500,000 die from infections or complications of blindness each year, so this is a serious worldwide health crisis. Golden rice is a genetically modified form of rice that produces beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. This causes it to take on a golden yellow color, and that's why we call it golden rice.
How Was Golden Rice Made?
Rice plants possess the ability to produce beta carotene already, but the genetic machinery that allows it to be produced is only turned on in the leaves and not in the grain of rice, which is what people eat. Two genes were added to rice plants, a plant phytoene synthase and a bacterial phytoene desaturase, to turn back on the machinery to make beta carotene in the grain of rice. The first golden rice was produced in Switzerland by Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus in 1999.
Over the next few years, scientists worked to increase the amount of beta carotene produced in the rice grain and succeeded in making golden rice with a high level of beta carotene by 2005. One small bowl of this new, improved golden rice can supply 60% of a child's daily requirement of vitamin A. Golden rice is currently produced by the biotech company Syngenta. Several strains of golden rice have been donated to the Golden Rice Humanitarian board to be distributed to poor countries in Asia where vitamin A deficiency is endemic. It is being bred with local varieties of rice to create strains that will grow well in the local climate.
Controversy Over Golden Rice and GMOs
If golden rice has the potential to deliver vitamin A to some of the world's poorest people and prevent blindness and death in thousands of children and pregnant women each year, why has it not been more widely adopted? The main reason is because of the fear that many people have of genetically modified food. Groups such as Greenpeace oppose the production of any genetically modified foods because of fears that they could be dangerous to human health or to the environment.
While this may be true for some genetically engineered organisms, golden rice has been extensively tested and scientists have shown that it is safe for human consumption. For centuries, farmers have been crossbreeding crops to produce desirable traits, and this happens in nature all the time as well. In those cases, many genes are modified and we have no way of knowing how each one is changed.
In contrast, genetically modified foods, such as golden rice, are very carefully studied and thoroughly tested before being approved for human consumption. In the case of golden rice, only two genes were added, and neither of those is harmful to humans in any way. Golden rice has been extensively tested and has proven to be a safe and easy way to get more vitamin A into the diets of our most vulnerable people.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering. One important GMO is golden rice, a strain of rice to which two genes have been added, allowing it to produce beta carotene in the rice grain. This is important because beta carotene is converted in your body to vitamin A, and in many poor regions of the world, people do not eat enough vitamin A and become blind or die as a result. Golden rice has the potential to save the eyesight and lives of many of these people, but is has still not been widely adopted, primarily due to opposition to GMOs from groups such as Greenpeace.
Once you finish watching the video, display your ability to:
- Explain what a GMO is
- Consider the importance of golden rice
- Understand how golden rice is made
- Analyze the controversey over golden rice and GMOs