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Indian Effort to Ameliorate Vitamin a Deficiency

Prof. C Kameswara RaoFoundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

Over one million children die weakened by vitamin A deficiency and about 3,50,000 others go blind, every year worldwide.   Several thousands of adults too suffer from vitamin A deficiency diseases (VADs)).  The World Bank estimated that VAD is an important health problem in the developing world, accounting for the loss of over 11.8 million Disability Adopted Life Years (DALY) plus 39.1 million DALY of associated disorders making for one quarter of global burden of diseases from malnutrition. 

The staple food cereal grains, more particularly rice, do not contain much of nutrients, other than starch.   Consequently, vast numbers of people in the developing countries who do not take diverse items of food, out of ignorance or a lack of availability or accessibility, risk a severe of vitamin A deficiency. 

Beta-carotene, produced primarily exclusively by plants, is essential to our health as it is converted by our body system into vitamin A.   Although two more carotenoids, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthine, are also vitamin A precursors, beta-carotene is metabolically efficient as one molecule of it results in two molecules of vitamin A, while the other two yield only one molecule per molecule.

Incorporation of the genes for beta-carotene synthesis in food grains, which contained none, has thus become an important innovation in genetically engineered crops.  Those who consume beta-carotene enriched foods would get some amount of the pro-vitamin into their system, without an additional expense or effort.  

Having realized the seriousness of the problem and the inadequacy of conventional interventions, India has been developing three different genetically engineered (GE) crops with enriched beta-carotene, to ameliorate vitamin A deficiency in the country.   Such an effort is not possible by conventional crop breeding practices.   However, there is still a long regulatory process and none of the products is likely to reach the market in this decade.

Golden Rice

In the year 2000, Ingo Potrykus and his team developed the Golden Rice (GR), which contained genes from the temperate garden plant daffodil and a fungus, for the synthesis of beta-carotene in the grain.  In 2001, the GR technology was offered to the developing countries such as India, free of technology costs and freedom to operate, under the ‘Golden Rice Humanitarian Board’, constituted with an active participation of Syngenta, a partner in the development of GR.  There is an attached condition that GR should not cost more than a comparable variety of rice in the market, in order to make it affordable to the masses. 

There has been severe, often absurd criticism, of the very concept of GR and its usefulness to the masses, from anti-tech activists and the affront continues.  In addition to the objection to the participation of the multinational company Syngenta, an important argument was that the quantity of beta-carotene in GR was too low to confer any benefits on the consumer, unless consumed in impractically large quantities.   From the original two microgram/gram, the level of beta-carotene in GR has been enhanced to 46 micrograms/gram, which is more than adequate for a day’s individual requirement of beta-carotene.  In response to several other questions raised, critical studies, that resulted in convincing scientific data, were conducted at the International Rice Research Institute, near Manila, on the bioavailability, stability in storage and food preparation, of beta-carotene in GR. 

Since 2001, efforts are being made in India, to incorporate the GR gene construct into suitable Indian rice cultivars, at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore.  The Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), stated recently that ‘India is not lagging behind in developing its versions of the genetically modified (GM) Golden Rice’ and that large-scale field trials of GR will happen within a year.   However, with details of progress under the wrap, there was more room for suspicion and criticism. 

The Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, has now constituted the ‘Indian Rice Project Development Group’ to consolidate the progress and implement the programme on development of Indian GR. 

Beta-carotene enriched mustard

TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), New Delhi, an autonomous institution, has developed a GE mustard containing high levels of beta-carotene, with the support of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and in collaboration with Michigan State University.   Although the development process was completed, this product has long way to go through the regulatory process, before it reaches the market.

Beta-carotene enriched peanut

Since 2003, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, has been developing a GE peanut with beta-carotene genes from corn.   ICRISAT considers that their GE peanut holds a higher potential than the other GE beta-carotene crops, as they have targeted 500 to 600 microgram/gram content of beta-carotene in this product and hope that this will be developed much faster than the others.     However, their testing would take another three years or so, followed by the GEAC’s regulatory regime.  ICRISAT is also planning to study the bioavailability of the beta-carotene in the GE peanut, along with biosafety testing on animals. After a satisfactory regulatory testing, this gene construct would be available to other countries too, to be put into their own peanut background.

ICRISAT feels that ‘Stricter government regulation is hindering commercialization of GMOs’, a frustration shared by many other developers of GE crops. 

ICRISAT’s peanut project is financed by Harvest Plus, supported by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and the William and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

October 24, 2006