IRRI seeks to improve the nutrition and health of rice farmers and consumers in a number of ways. Through improving the nutritional content of milled rice (biofortification with pro-vitamin A, iron and zinc), enhancing the health impact of rice consumption through changes in glycemic index or increased anti-oxidants, improving the safety of rice by reducing the risk of heavy metal contamination, as well as strongly supporting dietary diversification in rice-based agricultural systems.
Two billion people suffer from what is known as “hidden hunger,” or micronutrient malnutrition. More than half of the world’s population, including many of those living in poverty, rely heavily on rice for most of their entire calorie needs because they cannot afford, or do not have access to, a full range of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy. As a result, lack of iron, zinc, and vitamin A has become prevalent micronutrient deficiencies in rice-consuming countries. The cost of these deficiencies in terms of lives and quality of life lost is enormous, with women, children, and the elderly the most at risk.
In addition to hidden hunger, the double burden of malnutrition--defined as the coexistence of undernutrition with overweight, obesity, or diet-related non-communicable diseases, is a growing concern.
Some studies link the long-term consumption of rice, a food with a high glycemic index (GI), to an increased risk of developing Type II diabetes. Type II diabetes is a chronic disease that can cause many medical complications.
Healthier rice varieties have the potential to reach many people because rice is already widely grown and eaten. IRRI is developing rice varieties that have enriched micronutrient content, while also doing research into novel rice varieties and different rice types that can be part of a healthy low-GI diet.
Golden Rice is a new type of rice that contains beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A as needed. IRRI and its partners, Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), are developing popular local inbred rice varieties with the beta-carotene producing Golden Rice trait, which have yields, pest resistance, and eating qualities that are comparable to the original varieties. The creation of Golden Rice was a major breakthrough in biofortification. Together with its partners, IRRI continues to develop Golden Rice through the breeding of Asian rice varieties, field testing, assessing for safety and efficacy, and developing sustainable delivery programs.
High Iron & Zinc Rice (HIZR)
Most of the micronutrient content of rice is accumulated in the external bran that is removed after polishing. IRRI utilizes appropriate biofortification pathways to improve the micronutrient concentration in the endosperm or the consumed part of the rice.
Through the extensive repository of germplasm in the IRRI Genebank, IRRI, in collaboration with partners around the world, are cross-breeding rice with naturally higher levels of zinc to develop new, high-zinc, high-yielding consumer rice varieties.
Low Glycemic Index rice
Rice, in general, had been categorized as a high glycemic index (GI) food, but IRRI research has shown that the GI content of rice varies from one type of rice to another. Additionally, IRRI and its partners have been able to identify the key gene that determines the GI of rice, offering rice breeders the opportunity to develop rice varieties with different GI levels to meet consumer needs.
Reducing iron deficiency anemia
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2 billion people—or about 30% of the world’s population—are anemic, many due to iron deficiency. Further studies suggest that treatment of iron deficiency anemia can boost national productivity levels by up to 20%. The availability of iron-rich rice, especially in developing countries, has the potential to reduce that number significantly, improving not just the health of the individual, but also influencing the overall productivity of the population.
World’s first zinc-enriched rice varieties launched
Zinc mineral intake is essential for survival, and zinc deficiency has serious consequences for health, particularly during childhood when zinc requirements are highest. With parental germplasm developed at IRRI and support from HarvestPlus, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) was able to develop the world’s first zinc-rich rice variety dhan 62, containing 20 to 22 parts per million (ppm) of zinc, while the average zinc content of rice is 14 to 16 ppm. The variety was released in Bangladesh in 2013 (see Rice Today, Vol. 12 No. 4). At present, there are six conventionally bred high-zinc rice varieties available in Bangladesh.
A high-zinc Philippine rice variety NSIC 2016 Rc 460 was approved by the National Seed Industry Council in 2016.
A complementary solution to Vitamin A deficiency
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 190 million preschool children and 19 million pregnant women are vitamin A deficient globally. Biofortified with beta-carotene identical to those found in many types of vegetables and fruit, Golden Rice can supply from 30 to 50 percent of the average vitamin A requirement of preschool-age children and pregnant or lactating mothers, and potentially prevent 1.3–2.5 million of the nearly 8 million late-infancy and preschool-age child deaths annually in developing countries.
The key to the glycemic index of rice
A major public health challenge for almost every country across the globe, the number of people living with diabetes worldwide is expected to rise to over 592 million by 2035, with the pandemic cutting across all socioeconomic, gender, and age groups. By analyzing 235 types of rice from around the world, IRRI in collaboration with CSIRO in Australia found that the more amylose (a type of starch in rice) is in a particular rice variety, the lower the GI (and vice versa). This discovery has the potential to significantly impact the diabetes pandemic, as it can help rice consumers make informed choices on the types of rice to eat, as well as lead to the development of new and novel varieties of low GI rice.