New Variety of 'Golden Rice' Will Soon Be Grown in Bangladesh

Grains of golden rice compared to white rice. International Rice Research Institute [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Golden rice: It sounds like something far too valuable to eat, or maybe like some mythical food consumed by the gods. But it could soon make its way into the world's food supply by the year 2021, reports Science Magazine.

Golden rice was actually first developed back in the 1990s by German scientists who were looking for inventive ways to reduce rates of vitamin A (beta carotene) deficiency, which continues to be a major nutritional concern throughout the developing world. The beta carotene this rice is infused with, which comes from the maize genome, is what gives it that distinctive golden color. Developing it was filled with noble intent, but as with all genetically modified crops, it also has its fair share of critics.

Those critics warn that genetic modification is an unnecessary and potentially dangerous way of solving malnutrition around the world, as an in-depth NPR story explains.

But now Bangladesh is poised to become the first country to approve golden rice for planting, which means we could soon see it flooding the market, especially across Asia where rice consumption and vitamin A deficiency are both prolific.

"It is really important to say we got this over the line," said Johnathan Napier, a plant biotechnologist at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, United Kingdom.

While golden rice has already been approved for consumption by regulators in some key markets in the developed world, including within the United States, there haven't been any plans to actually cultivate the crop, which is why you can't find it at the supermarket. Bangladesh might be a better market for growing and distributing the crop, however, because vitamin A deficiency there remains a major concern. It affects about 21% of children.

Despite panic from critics, early testing of golden rice has been promising. For instance, researchers at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) found no new farming challenges with the crop and no significant differences in quality, with the exception that golden rice was more nutritious than traditional varieties. Officials are still running projections about the environmental impacts of this crop, such as its potential to become an invasive weed. If those results show it won't be a problem, then golden rice will have received all the approval it needs to move forward with planting.

Whether or not there will be a voracious market for the crop remains to be seen. It will need to gain the public's trust, and it's uncertain whether golden rice will offer a better nutritional bang for the buck compared to other sources of vitamin A, such as other vegetables where it occurs naturally. Still, it's a major step forward for proponents of genetic modification, such as scientists at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is an important part of the funding arm of this movement.

If golden rice does prove to be successful in Bangladesh, then it could open the flood gates for GM crops worldwide. Additional varieties are already in development, such as varieties better adapted to other seasons or locations.

"It would be great to see it approved," said Napier. "It's been a long time coming."