The food regulators of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have concluded that the vitamin A content in the genetically modified golden rice is too low to warrant a nutrient content claim.
They said that if all rice and rice-derived products in their countries were replaced with golden rice its contribution to increasing vitamin A intake among their citizens would still be negligible.
Golden in colour, the golden rice is genetically modified to produce in its endosperm beta carotene, also known as pro-vitamin A, which human body can convert into vitamin A.
Touted for long by its developers and pro-GM campaigners as a potentially effective food to combat vitamin A deficiency, the golden rice is in the final stage of getting approval for commercial release in Bangladesh.
‘I am not aware of any report ever suggesting that the golden rice contains low vitamin,’ Bangladesh Rice Research Institute director general Shahjahan Kabir told New Age.
BRRI is among the institutions which, over the last two months, repeatedly referred to the golden rice assessments by the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as part of a campaign that promised that golden rice was safe.
In February, BRRI, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute, the developer of the rice variety, held a workshop for journalists to highlight that the said countries had found golden rice safe for consumption as conventional ones.
They, however, never mentioned that the countries had also concluded that the vitamin A content in the golden rice was so low that it could not claim a health benefit.
Like many other parts in the world, movements against GM technology was gaining ground in Bangladesh for a long time as the health, environmental and other impacts of the technology were still unknown to scientists.
Anti-GM activist Farida Akhter said that GM technology developers were releasing or highlighting part of the truth that was helpful for introducing businesses based on GM technology.
‘They want the GM crops out in the field anyway. The best way to go about it is to mislead the people and confuse the policymakers,’ said Farida, also the executive director of non-government organisation Ubinig.
‘The vitamin A campaign is just one of their tricks,’ she said.
The food regulators in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand carried out their assessments of the golden rice at the request of IRRI between 2016 and 2018.
IRRI requested them to consider the golden rice as safe food to avoid trade disruption after the release of the rice in South and Southeast Asian countries.
IRRI said that though it did not intend to release the golden rice in the countries it may inadvertently be present in food items imported by them.
All the data used by the four countries during their assessment were provided by IRRI.
‘Although the concentration of beta carotene in GR2E rice (golden rice) is too low to warrant a nutrient content claim, the beta carotene in GR2E rice results in a grain that is yellow-golden in colour,’ the US Food and Drug Administration said in its report in May 2018.
Canadian food regulator Health Canada said that if all rice and rice products in the country were replaced with the golden rice it may result in a very small increase – from 0.8 to 8 per cent only – in the beta carotene intake by their population.
The Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the food regulator for the two countries, said that replacement of all rice in Australia and New Zealand with the golden rice may result in two to 13 per cent increase in the beta carotene intake by their populations.
The resulted increase in the beta carotene intake, the regulator said, is equivalent to the amount of beta carotene received from approximately just one teaspoon or less of carrot juice.
Addressing the question whether the golden rice suppliers should issue a nutrient claim, it said that the suppliers would not be able to do so for a very low amount of vitamin A was present in the rice variety. A nutrient content claim would be misleading because it would give people the impression that ‘the food contributes a nutritionally significant amount of this vitamin (vitamin A),’ it said.
Partha S Biswas, former project leader of BRRI’s Golden Rice Project, said that the low-rice consuming developed countries needed higher vitamin concentration in rice for a health impact.
‘But the golden rice could be an important source of vitamin A for the countries that predominantly consume rice,’ said Partha.
Rice consumption is, however, rapidly falling in Bangladesh following rapid economic development.
The latest data collected by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics showed that per capita rice consumption in Bangladesh went down to 367 grams in 2016 from 416 grams in 2010, an 11 per cent fall.
Partha said that each gram of golden rice contained 10 micrograms of beta carotene, enough to meet 50 per cent of daily demand for vitamin A in adult males who consume average amount of rice.
Reduction of vitamin A deficiency in human body is difficult through a single food source as its absorption in the body depends on a number of conditions, including physical ability, and the type of the food consumed, nutritionists say.
BRRI’s senior scientific officer Jannatul Ferdous said that the capacity for beta carotene absorption from foods may vary from 2 per cent to 65 per cent depending on varying physical ability.
The Health Canada refrained from making any comment on the efficacy of the golden rice in reducing vitamin A deficiency without studying its impact on affected people.
India-based anti-GM activist and researcher Afsar Jafri, who was following developments regarding release of the golden rice in Bangladesh, accused IRRI of deceiving people through the issuance of generalised statements like ‘the golden rice was cleared by the regulatory processes in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand’.
She said that the golden rice would need to undergo separate tests should its marketing is ever intended in the countries in question either for human consumption or to be used as fodder.
‘IRRI is telling half-truth to influence Bangladesh’s regulatory process,’ she said.
Humnath Bhandari, IRRI representative for Bangladesh, said that they were not influencing anyone anywhere.
He said that they referred to international assessments to allay people’s concerns about whether the golden rice was safe for consumption.
Regarding the low vitamin A content in the golden rice, he said that the conventional rice varieties did not contain vitamin A at all.
‘The golden rice has extra benefits and it is safe for consumption,’ he said.
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