Imagine living in Bangladesh and eating little more than a bowl of rice or two each day. Rice has been part of your diet since you were a child, and you feed it to your children because it’s filling, inexpensive and accessible. Aside from small helpings of vegetables or legumes or the occasional piece of chicken, rice is your primary food source.
Rice has calories, but it has minimal additional nutritional value. A diversified diet that includes nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables (and, preferably, animal source foods such as chicken and eggs) is necessary to prevent sight- and life-threatening deficiencies, including vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of childhood blindness, leaving approximately 350,000 children blind every year. Young children with vitamin A deficiency also have impaired immune systems; a condition which increases the risk of death from certain common childhood infections and claims the lives of 670,000 children each year who live in less developed countries.
I have been working with Helen Keller International (HKI) for over twenty years to design, implement and test vitamin A delivery programs. I’ve seen a lot of successes over this time, especially our work to distribute vitamin A capsules to children and post partum women in the developing world. When we first promoted this intervention, it was considered controversial but now has become recognized as one of the most vital, cost-effective public health interventions in the world.
At HKI, we are committed to identifying and delivering high-impact interventions to improve nutrition in developing countries. We are also committed to ensuring that all women and children who need micronutrients to survive and thrive, including vitamin A, get it in adequate amounts. This has not yet been achieved globally. Yet now there is another option to explore: Golden Rice.
Golden Rice, which is somewhat controversial, has been genetically modified so that it contains beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. It has the potential, therefore, to be another tool in our efforts to control vitamin A deficiency. Lots of people consume rice, so Golden Rice could have broad-scale reach and eventually play a significant role in ending vitamin A deficiency for those most in need.
HKI’s role in this project is to make sure that Golden Rice is efficacious – that it actually improves vitamin A status, before it is promoted in communities. We, with some key partners, will test to what degree daily consumption of Golden Rice improves vitamin A status under controlled community conditions. If it is shown to work, HKI will then develop and test delivery systems to ensure that Golden Rice reaches those who need it most, the poor and disadvantaged living in developing countries.
While there is no single cure-all for vitamin A deficiency, Golden Rice could become an important complementary intervention to ensure that all those who need vitamin A get it, including those families in Bangladesh subsisting primarily on rice. In these days of increasing food prices and consequent “hidden hunger,” that’s a golden opportunity.