Golden rice (right) provides more vitamin A than normal rice. Credit: International Rice Research Institute

Nearly US$20 million in new grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will be spent on getting nutritionally enhanced rice and cassava to market and decreasing malnourishment in Asia and Africa.

The grants will help in the development, testing and marketing of Golden Rice, which is fortified with vitamin A, in the Philippines and Bangladesh, and BioCassava Plus, a tuber fortified with vitamin A, iron and protein in Kenya and Nigeria.

In rich countries, people generally have access to a diverse diet and to foods that have been fortified with various essential nutrients, but these items are often unaffordable or unobtainable in the developing world.

People in poor nations, especially farmers, often only have access to what they grow. In parts of Asia, people rely on rice for 50–80% of their daily calories, and around 70 million Africans rely on cassava. It's no surprise then, that vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect more than two billion people worldwide, and contribute to around 7% of deaths and 10% of the disease burden in low-income countries, according to Juan Pablo Pena-Rosas, coordinator of the Micronutrients Unit at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Biofortified, or nutritionally enhanced, staple crops could thus greatly reduce the death and disease burden related to nutritional deficiencies, according to Lawrence Kent, head of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. Several research groups are working on fortified varieties of bean, rice, maize, sweet potato, cowpea, peanut, wheat, pumpkin and banana.

"I'm optimistic that biofortification can help to improve people's health and lives because we are using sustainable foods that people already grow," Kent says.

Lab or field?

Plants can be fortified either through conventional plant breeding or using biotechnology to alter its genome and increase its nutritional yield, explains Pena-Rosas.

The firm HarvestPlus in Washington DC, which released orange sweet potato containing 50% of the daily vitamin A requirement in Uganda and Mozambique in 2007, uses traditional breeding techniques. Both Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and have attracted their fair share of negative attention from the anti-GMO lobby. "Anything that involves biotechnology involves a level of controversy," explains Kent. "But we need to be open and data-focused."

The Gates Foundation grants will help to generate the data needed for Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus to meet food safety and environmental regulations. "These crops will not be used by farmers or consumers until they pass tests for biosafety in each country," says Gerard Barry, who coordinates the Golden Rice Network at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños in the Philippines.

Golden Rice is expected to receive regulatory approval in the Philippines in 2013 and in Bangladesh in 2015, according to Ingo Potrykus, a retired geneticist at the Institute of Plant Sciences in Zurich, Switzerland, and one of the rice's inventors. BioCassava Plus should follow a few years later — the team hopes to obtain approvals by 2017, according to Martin Fregene, a plant geneticist and the director of the BioCassava Plus Program, based in St Louis, Missouri.

"As long as we can show that [these products] add value and are safe, there is no mother who would not want to use them to increase the health of her kids," says Fregene.