Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) continues to be a major public health concern worldwide. It is estimated that 250,000–300,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, with half of them dying within a year after getting blind.
Here at home, not only are we not making progress, the problem is getting worse. VAD incidence among children increased from 15.2% in 2008 to 20.4% in 2013. According to the UNICEF study on the Economic Burden of Malnutrition in the Philippines (2016), there are 1,840 childhood deaths per year due to VAD.
Clearly our current programs to eliminate VAD by promoting production and consumption of vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables, distribution of vitamin A capsule supplements and mandatory vitamin A fortification of vegetable cooking oil are not enough.
Another complementary way to increase vitamin A intake is by biofortification of foods vulnerable populations regularly consume. This is accomplished by enriching the beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) content of foods by conventional plant breeding and/or by use of modern transgenic methods (GMOs).
Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) have incorporated these beta carotene genes from yellow corn into our popular varieties (baptized as Golden Rice). And now Golden Rice is ready for formal assessment for food and feed safety, for bio-efficacy, and finally for field testing in farmers’ fields. Applications are now pending since last year with the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) of the Department of Agriculture (DA).
Editor’s note: Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP)
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