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3-Food: IRRI starts food tests with iron-zinc-rich, non-GE rice

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TITLE:  New Strains of Rice Promise Better Health, Eyesight
SOURCE: Reuters, by Dolly Aglay
DATE:   November 7, 2001

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New Strains of Rice Promise Better Health, Eyesight

Manila - A modest bowl of rice is something Asia's poor and hungry will 
always look forward to, but scientists hope new strains of the staple food 
will do much more than fill empty stomachs. The International Rice Research 
Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, seeking to improve the diets of 
countless millions, is working on a new generation of healthier rice. In 
one of the largest human feeding trials of a staple food, 300 nuns in the 
capital Manila will be enlisted next year to help test a rice variety rich 
in iron and zinc that may help combat anaemia. The IRRI is also helping 
develop genetically-modified rice known as "golden rice," aimed at 
combating Vitamin A deficiency, responsible for half a million cases of 
irreversible blindness and up to a million deaths a year among the world's 
poorest people.

"We are not only developing higher yielding rice but also developing super-
value rice," 36-year-old Filipino scientist Glenn Gregorio of the IRRI told 
Reuters by telephone. The Institute estimates that about one third of the 
world's population suffers from anaemia, which impairs immunity and reduces 
physical and mental capacity. About 60 percent of all pregnant women in 
Asia and about 40 percent of school children are iron deficient.

Golden Rice

The IRRI, credited widely for helping the world feed itself by developing 
high-yielding rice during the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, is 
one of several organisations around the world carrying out systematic work 
on improving crops. Rice feeds about half of the world's population, and 90 
percent of the total annual harvest comes from Asia.

Not all research into new crop varieties involves genetic engineering, but 
the IRRI is helping with work on genetically-modified Vitamin A enriched 
rice, or "Golden Rice." This rice was developed by German scientists by 
implanting two genes from a daffodil and one from a bacterium into a 
japonica rice variety called T309. Samples of the grain were donated to 
IRRI this year for research and breeding. IRRI's chief plant 
biotechnologist, Swapan Datta, believes genetic engineering could speed the 
quest for healthier rice. "If there is a need and there is a possibility to 
have a new technology and new ways to improve nutrition, we should be doing 
that," he said. Datta said the planting material for golden rice would be 
ready within two to three years. "Farmers can have them in five years. 
That's our hope," he said.

Nuns Experiment

In a bid to improve the nutritional value of rice, the IRRI's Gregorio is 
developing a new rice variety which it stumbled upon while working on 
research into rice with tolerance to low temperatures. The variety, rich in 
iron and zinc and known as IR68144, was developed by cross breeding two 
varieties. It will be fed to nuns from eight Manila convents early next 
year, Gregorio said. The IRRI, based near Manila, said the trial aims to 
convince nutritionists that the iron and zinc-enriched rice is capable of 
reducing the incidence of iron-deficiency anaemia. The trial was originally 
set to begin this April, but delayed because of an inadequate harvest of 
the iron-rich rice.

"Typhoons late last year swamped our farm, resulting in a poor harvest," 
said Gregorio. The IRRI said it had recently harvested enough rice in a 
nearly 13 hectare (32 acres) farm inside the institute to feed the sisters 
over a period of seven to nine months in the test which will be supervised 
by Cornell University and Pennsylvania State University in the United 
States. "We tested 27 religious sisters in 1999," Gregorio said, adding 
that the iron status of the nuns improved after eating the rice exclusively 
for a period of six months.

"But nutritionists remained unconvinced, and that trial is now being 
regarded as a dress rehearsal for the main event," the IRRI said in its 
recent annual report. In the new trial, about half of the 300 sisters will 
be fed with IR68144 and the rest will eat normal rice for up to nine 
months. Gregorio said that if next year's trial succeeds, the rice variety 
could be released to farmers within two years.


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