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How A St. Louis Scientist Is Helping Bring Golden Rice To The Philippines

Donald McKenzie is executive director of the Institute for International Crop Improvement at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Olivette.
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Donald MacKenzie is executive director of the Institute for International Crop Improvement at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.

A diet without enough vitamin A can have serious consequences, including dry, damaged eyes, frequent infections and even blindness. Yet few people in the Philippines get enough. As in many countries where people subsist mostly on rice, vitamin A is in short supply.

"Golden rice" was engineered to solve that problem. Nearly 30 years ago, European scientists figured out how to infuse rice with beta carotene, which the body naturally converts to vitamin A. Golden rice was approved for consumption in the U.S. and Canada in 2018.

But it wasn’t until last month that it was finally granted permission to be grown commercially in the Philippines. After just one more growing season, Donald MacKenzie said it could be ready to be planted in Philippine soil. MacKenzie is the executive director of the Institute for International Crop Improvement at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

Golden Rice is true to its name.
International Rice Research Institute
Golden rice is true to its name.

That’s a huge milestone for a superfood that’s been discussed as a game changer for nearly 30 years. Time magazine even put golden rice on its cover 21 years ago with a caption reading, “This rice could save a million kids a year.”

But MacKenzie, who personally traveled to the Philippines numerous times to secure regulatory approvals, said it’s not fair to conclude that millions of kids died while the rice was stuck in red tape. For one thing, he explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, it took years to get golden rice ready for commercial propagation. (He puts the safety testing and regulatory process that followed the field work at six years — a long time, but far shorter than 21 years.)

MacKenzie added that other programs also work to treat vitamin A deficiency in rice-centric countries. “Golden rice was never really intended to be the be-all and the end-all, to be the total solution for vitamin A deficiency,” he said, “but just one of those approaches that in combination with others could solve the problem.”

'The Poster Child For Biotechnology'
Listen to Don MacKenzie on St. Louis on the Air

Those caveats aside, golden rice endured an unusual gauntlet. Greenpeace became a vocal critic, seeing it as a Trojan horse that would allow other genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to take root.

“Golden rice, for better or for worse, was set up as the poster child for biotechnology,” MacKenzie said. “Here was the one example of an agricultural biotechnology product that could directly help improve the health and well-being of consumers.”

He added: “When you put yourself out there as the leader of the pack, you're going to attract some attention. And that's what golden rice did.”

From the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, MacKenzie has logged many frequent flyer miles helping push products like golden rice through their regulatory gantlet. (Disease-resistant cassava in Kenya and insect-resistant cowpeas in Nigeria are just two other examples.)

“It's a team sport … working together to help put together the regulatory applications, do the studies, deal with the questions and concerns that come back from the regulatory agencies and prepare the answers to them,” he said. “And more than anything else? You need perseverance.”

He added: “The estimates are that it takes on average 13 years to move from proof of concept to being able to deliver something into the hands of farmers. So the story of golden rice, and the time it's taken, is not really an unusual one.”

Where it is, perhaps, unusual, is the sheer altruism involved. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, golden rice was invented with the idea that it could be a force for good.

“Golden rice is going to be made available to farmers at the same price as conventional rice, and farmers growing golden rice will be able to keep their seed from year to year,” MacKenzie explained. “It is not going to be a moneymaking proposition for anyone, for sure.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.