Australian researchers are reporting a threefold rise in iron in white rice, thanks to biofortification.
Rice, the staple food of millions in Asia, is known to lack vital micronutrients like iron, leading to a whole host of health problems. Now help is at hand.
Unlike mineral supplements, which are expensive and rely heavily on health infrastructures for dispersal, biofortified crops offer a cheap, reliable and sustainable solution to Fe and other micronutrient deficiencies.
Over 2 billion people, or 30 per cent of the world's population, suffer from Fe deficiency with symptoms ranging from poor mental development in children, to depressed immune function and anaemia.
Dr Alexander Johnson, based in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne, has come up with increases of up to threefold more iron in white rice, and he is now expanding the program to include other cereal species such as wheat.
He is also developing a new generation of researchers in this important field, through the Master of Science in the Melbourne Graduate School of Science. MSc (Botany) student Skye Shields is currently researching the biotech rice that has been developed in the Johnson lab, using a variety of molecular tools to better understand the genetic mechanisms responsible for the high-iron grain. The results of this study are an important step in characterising the rice plants before they are tested in the field. The study may also shed light on new mechanisms that could be used to generate other crops with enhanced nutrient levels.
Based on micronutrient deficiency rates, there is compelling evidence that biofortification can be a key objective for plant breeders, in addition to the traditional objectives of disease resistance, yield, drought tolerance, etc, it has been observed earlier.
Scientific evidence shows that biofortification is technically feasible. Breeding for a micronutrient concentration that can have biological impact, without compromising agronomic traits, has been demonstrated for crops such as sweet potato.
Predictive cost-benefit analyses have shown biofortification to be important in the armamentarium for controlling micronutrient deficiencies. The challenge is to get consumer acceptance for biofortified crops, thereby increasing the intake of the target nutrients. With the advent of good seed systems, the development of markets and products, and demand creation, this can become a reality.