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Anaemia-buster rice for trial

New Delhi, Feb. 25: India might become the first country to conduct field trials of a new variety of rice genetically engineered to contain iron, dubbed by its developers as a future weapon against anaemia.

The genetically fortified rice, developed by scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila, Philippines, along with counterparts from India and seven countries, can store as much as three times more iron than normal rice seeds.

The IRRI and Indian agricultural scientists have prepared a “work-plan” to begin field trials of the genetically-engineered, iron-fortified rice in India by the end of the year, Swapan Datta, a senior IRRI scientist said today.

“India needs rice fortified with iron. Iron-deficiency anaemia is a major public health problem here,” Datta said. However, critics of plant genetic engineering have in the past claimed that attempts to genetically transform rice to turn it into a source of additional nutrients are “unnecessary and hazardous”.

Datta said the planned field trials will be accompanied by safety tests that involve feeding the genetically engineered rice to laboratory rats. The studies are likely to be conducted at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

The IRRI scientists inserted an “iron storage” gene from soyabean into rice plants to create a variety of rice that selectively mops up iron from the soil. Each gram of this transformed rice expresses 15 micrograms of iron.

Studies show the cooking process reduces the iron content to around 10 micrograms a gram of rice. But this is still significantly higher than the 3 to 8 micrograms of iron that is available from normal rice.

Datta said it could take four to five years before the technology is ready for transfer to farmers. “If all goes according to plan, it might be available by 2006.”

Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritional problem in the world, affecting about 3.5 billion people.

Non-government organisations have decried efforts to genetically transform rice plants for additional nutrients, calling them unwarranted because they say the nutrients can be easily had from green leafy vegetables.

The Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology in New Delhi has been a major detractor of plant genetic engineering efforts.

“As a technology to address nutrition deficiencies, genetic engineering in its current stage of development is unnecessary and hazardous,” said foundation officials, commenting on another variety of rice that was genetically engineered to deliver vitamin A.

The foundation had said that drumsticks and papayas are far better sources of vitamin A than the transformed rice. Nutrition scientists concede that normal rice with plenty of green leafy vegetables such as spinach could be a good source of iron.

“But rice is a staple food in India, and is consumed far more than spinach,” said Gurdev Khush from the University of California, Davis.

Plant scientists concede that the ultimate solution to eradicating malnutrition is to substantially increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables. But, they caution, achieving that could take decades.

“Meanwhile, biofortification through genetic engineering could contribute significantly as an integrated approach to combating malnutrition,” said Howard Bouis, a researcher from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the US.

Datta said attempts are also underway to develop a rice with vitamin A and iron as well as high protein.

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