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FOOD/A golden opportunity, wasted 6000 times a day

The lack of vitamin A is the primary cause of death globally, with about two million victims every year. PIERO MORANDINI describes the aim of the “Allow Golden Rice now!” campaign

Golden Rice, a source of vitamin A Golden Rice, a source of vitamin A

Before you start reading, please - trust me - take note of what time it is.

The lack of vitamin A is the primary cause of death globally, even higher than AIDS, with about two million victims every year, or about 6000 people a day, or again four every minute. When you will be done reading this article, another two dozen people or more will have died; plus, several will have lost their sight. A significant portion of the victims are women and children, especially among the poor in Southeast Asia and in Africa. These peoples' diets are not rich enough, and they are primarily based on just one type of food – often rice – which is lacking vitamin A, or carotenoids such as beta-carotene (the compound responsible for the typical orange color of carrots) and others, that can be converted into vitamin A by our body.

Various programs have been underway for several years to eradicate this huge plague, with methods such as the distribution of pills containing this vitamin, education to a more diversified diet, promotion of home-grown vegetable gardens, and use of plants rich in carotenoids, such as carrots. Despite the fact that progress has been made, the numbers quoted above make it evident that, although these methods contributed to reduce the phenomenon, none of them was able to solve the problem.

It's not hard to imagine the difficulties one runs into: for instance, how many volunteers are there, to periodically bring the pill to remote villages in the mountains and to thousands of islands in Southeast Asia? How do you convince the local populations to take the pill, possibly not even speaking their languages? Or, how to convince a poor family in an Indian metropolis to make a vegetable garden and to grow carrots, when they do not own even the smallest bit of land? Alternative, effective methods are needed. While people discuss in their living rooms, others keep suffering and dying.

One of the methods consists of improving the nutritional properties of foods by exploiting knowledge in biology and biotechnology; for instance, by crossbreeding different varieties and seeking new genetic combinations in the offspring to increase the content of beta-carotene. This isn't always possible though, such as in the case of rice where all attempts with conventional breeding have failed, or it may require extended periods of time.

Some others have attempted a biotechnology-based method, by using the genes responsible for the synthesis of carotenoids in a more targeted and predictable way with respect to the traditional method; and, by the way, the two methods modify the very same genes. The attempt was courageous, and the results were remarkable. In a few years it was possible to increase the carotenoid content of various food crops, including rice, manioc, banana, potato, rapeseed and others.