Emma is a 38-year-old mother of eight from the Philippines. She earns a living as a cleaning lady, and putting food on the table is a challenge that she and her husband face each day.
For Emma and many other families in Asia, rice is the staple food, which eats up the family’s meager budget. “We depend on rice every day, because it is filling,” she said. “Most of the time, however, we cannot afford fish, meat, or vegetables. We only sprinkle salt or soy sauce to add some flavor or sometimes prepare rice as porridge.
“I know this lacks the important nutrients that will help make my children grow healthy, but what can I do? We have to fill our stomachs first,” Emma laments.
Families around the world, like Emma’s, consume only nutrient-poor staple foods because other nutritious food such as meat products, vegetables, and fruits are scarce, unavailable, or too expensive. This contributes to hidden hunger—malnutrition from micronutrients. With the ballooning world population, “hidden hunger” will also likely rise.
Lack of sufficient vitamin A in the diet reduces the body’s ability to fight infections such as diarrhea and measles. It can also cause blindness and increases the risk of death. Vitamin A is particularly important for children as well as pregnant and lactating women as their nutrient needs are increased.
Asia has one of the highest prevalences of vitamin A deficiency in the world. It is considered a public health problem in many Asian countries with 33.5% of preschool children afflicted. In 2009, the World Health Organization reported that more than 90 million children in Southeast Asia suffered from it, more than in any other region. Each year, it is estimated that 670,000 children under the age of five die because they are vitamin A-deficient, and another 350,000 go blind.
The Philippines’ Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) reported that, in 2003, vitamin A deficiency afflicted 40.1% of Filipino children, 15.5% of pregnant women, and 20.1% of lactating women, making it a serious public health concern.
To address the vitamin A deficiency problem in the Philippines, the government, together with non-government organizations and the private sector, has been implementing far-reaching programs such as the distribution of vitamin A capsules. Sangkap Pinoy, a food fortification program, was also established to ensure that food products such as noodles are fortified with vitamin A along with other micronutrients.
Owing in part to these programs, recent data indicate that the population’s vitamin A status has improved. The National Nutrition Survey conducted by FNRI in 2008 showed a decreasing trend in vitamin A deficiency among children aged 6 to 59 months (15.2%), pregnant women (9.5%), and lactating women (6.4%).
Despite these positive developments, however, vitamin A deficiency remains a significant public health problem in many less developed countries according to Nancy Haselow, vice president and regional director of Helen Keller International (HKI). HKI has been advocating the elimination of vitamin A deficiency for more than 40 years, working with governments and other partners to reach those most in need through various interventions. She said, “The most vulnerable children and women in hard-to-reach areas are often missed by existing interventions that can improve vitamin A status, including vitamin A supplementation, food fortification, dietary diversification, and promotion of optimal breastfeeding.
”Also, interventions such as vitamin A supplementation are sustainable only as long as there is funding and political will to continue. What if support for these programs halts?
A free-market driven, food-based effort with wide coverage that reaches poor areas could be more sustainable toward controlling vitamin A deficiency in the future, thus preventing blindness and earlier death. What could help fill the basket of options to tackle vitamin A deficiency?
A golden advantage Golden Rice may be part of the answer. Golden Rice is unique because it contains beta carotene, which gives it a golden color. The body converts beta carotene to vitamin A as it is needed. According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009, daily consumption of a very modest amount of Golden Rice and about a cup could supply 50% of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A for an adult.
Through genetic modification, Golden Rice contains genes from maize and from a common soil microorganism that produce beta carotene in the grains. It was first developed by Prof. Ingo Potrykus, then of the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Prof. Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. By 1999, Prof. Potrykus and Dr. Beyer had produced a prototype Golden Rice and published their landmark research in Science. Since 2000, scientific research and international collaboration on Golden Rice have been supported by funding and in-kind support from the private, public, and philanthropic sectors. In 2005, a major breakthrough led to the development of a new Golden Rice that now produces more beta carotene. This became the foundation of the current efforts.
The beauty of Golden Rice lies in its potential to reach many people—who may not have regular access to other sources of vitamin A—because rice is widely produced and consumed. Rice is eaten and grown in more than 100 countries, including the Philippines, and is the staple food for more than 3 billion people. Rice provides 50–80% of the total caloric intake of most Asians, who are most affected by vitamin A deficiency.
“Since a large proportion of vitamin A–deficient children and their mothers reside in rice-consuming populations, particularly in Asia, Golden Rice should substantially reduce the prevalence and severity of vitamin A deficiency, and prevent at least hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of blindness every year,” said Alfred Sommer, professor and dean emeritus, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Sommer, an internationally acclaimed public health scientist, has been at the forefront of vitamin A deficiency research, leading major studies that were fundamental to the current understanding of the effect of vitamin A supplementation on mortality, malnutrition, and blindness.
Ms. Garcia is a Senior Specialist – Communications at International Rice Research Institute