Dateline Southeast Asia

Scientists develop ‘breakthrough’ GM rice with increased iron and zinc

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Irri
Photo: Irri

Related tags Milk

Rice scientists have made a “breakthrough” in genetic crop development through a process of biofortification to increase iron and zinc levels in rice. Their discovery, the researchers say, will have a significant impact on the global fight against human micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger”.

Having found proof of concept in confined field trials for increasing iron and zinc levels in rice without a yield penalty, or a change in grain quality, the development could potentially help developing nations reach nutritional targets for iron and zinc, which are essential to prevent malnutrition, anaemia and stunting.

The work, led by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institution (Irri), has been published in Nature‘s Scientific Reports​.

This significant increase in iron and zinc levels was achieved through rigorous gene optimisation, large-scale plant transformation and event selection at the confined facilities of Irri​,” said Inez Slamet-Loedin, senior scientist and head of Irri’s Genetic Transformation Laboratory. 

We are now developing back-up lines using rice and bean genes. More work needs to be done to facilitate varietal release and allow future impact​.”

According to the World Health Organisation, iron deficiency is the most pervasive form of malnutrition and a leading cause of anaemia in women and children. Zinc deficiency, meanwhile, causes stunting and has serious consequences for health, particularly during childhood.

Polished rice grains generally contain only about 2µg of iron and 16µg of zinc per gram. With limited variation in grain iron content across the rice gene pool, conventional breeding efforts have fallen short of reaching 13µg of iron and 28µg of zinc per gram of polished rice to fulfil 30% of the estimated average requirement in humans.

However, the Irri study found a method to genetically engineer rice to have significantly increased levels of iron and zinc—up to 15µg and 45.7µg respectively—per gram of polished rice that human cells can potentially absorb.

To do so, the scientists used genes—nicotianamine synthase from rice and ferritin from soybean—that together produced high-micronutrient grains. They introduced the genes to a rice variety, IR64, and bred these into other popular indica varieties, the world’s most widely grown type of rice from South and Southeast Asia, where Fe and Zn deficiencies are prevalent.

Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, the CGIAR global agriculture research partner which funded the research, said the study heralded the social application of transgenic techniques. 

Bouis said: ‟The research results, which have exceeded target levels of both iron and zinc, speak of the immense potential of using transgenic techniques in pursuing biofortification to improve the nutritional value of food crops​. 

This demonstrates how scientific innovations can expand the range of solutions to curbing micronutrient deficiencies​.”

More stories from Southeast Asia…

Bakery veteran acquires stake in ‘diabetic bread’ biotech firm

Meiert Grootes, chairman of Europe’s biggest supplier of speciality baking products, has acquired a stake in a Malaysian-Australian biotech firm that earlier this year launched ingredients to produce the world’s first clean-label, low-GI “diabetic” white bread.


Holista Colltech, which develops “natural healthstyle products​”, announced that Grootes's shares, when fully exercised, would allow the 27-year bakery industry veteran to own up to 10% of the company. Within three years, he expected to emerge as Holista’s third-biggest shareholder, the company said in a statement.

In January, Holista CollTech claimed a global scientific breakthrough when it announced it had developed ingredients to produce a white bread with a glycemic index of 53—the world’s lowest for such a product. The company said its blend significantly reduced the high blood sugar levels caused by consuming white bread and bakery products. 

Its claims have been validated by an Australian university, which conducted a final clinical study in December, confirming that white bread blended with Holista’s GI Lite formula and a natural sourdough by Veripan, the Swiss company which Grootes chairs, registered the lowest glycemic index level ever achieved by any clean-label white bread.

The formula consists of Holista’s GI Lite, which contains extracts of okra, lentils, barley and fenugreek, and Veripan’s Pantura sourdough.

Rajen Marnicka, chairman and chief executive of Holista, called the results a “major breakthrough​” at a time of growing concerns surrounding high blood sugar levels across Asia-Pacific.

Holista and Veripan will initially begin their joint distribution of Panatura GI in Australia around October. The roll-out will be followed in Europe, North America, China, India and the rest of Asia. The global white bread market is worth US$170bn.

Holista claims that the use of Panatura GI will increase production costs marginally, and will comprise roughly 5-7% of the final formulation.

Grootes said: “I can say with conviction that this is the best thing since sliced bread. With Holista’s expertise and our business networks, we intend to make this revolutionary ingredient available to food manufacturers around the world​.”

Vietnam’s dairy sector ripe for milking

Unable to keep up with rising local demand, Vietnam’s dairy sector shows immense potential for local and foreign investors, according to a new report.


Market analyst Research and Markets has found that factors such as rising demand due to an increasing affinity for Western cuisine have bolstered Vietnam’s dairy market—traditionally one of the lowest per-capita milk consumers in Southeast Asia. This in turn has brought heavy investment to the segment.

With demand outstripping supply, milk production of 456,400 tonnes in 2013 met just 28% of the market. While domestic supply has grown by 26.6% annually from 2001-2014, and reached 549,500 tones in 2014, such quantities are still not sufficient to meet the market’s needs. 

Low cattle numbers mean that Vietnam is heavily reliant on milk imports. In 2013, the market for imported milk products was valued at US$1.1bn, an increase of 130% over the previous year. This figure is expected to reach US$3.6 billion by 2045. 

Now exporting dairy products to more than 29 foreign markets, the country’s dairy farms have been ramping up a modernisation programme, and the total milk cow herd was expected to have reached 240,000 by the end of last year.

Vietnam now plans to meet 60% of domestic demand for fresh milk by 2045, based on a projected population of roughly 113m. To meet this target, Research and Markets believes the country needs to develop a herd capable of producing 5.65m tonnes of milk annually. 

Thai food companies advised to target booming Myanmar

Thailand’s industry ministry has advised small- and medium-sized food manufacturers to target Myanmar, which has ben witnessing a significant rise in imports from its eastern neighbour.


The ministry’s National Food Institute found that Thai exports to Myanmar had increased by almost one-quarter in 2015, making it the country’s fourth biggest food market after Japan, America and China.

Yongvut Saovapruk, president of the institute, said that Myanmar, whose economy is forecast to grow by 8% this year, represented 4% of Thailand's total food exports in 2015 with a value of THB900bn (US$25.3bn).

He said that consumers there were particularly keen on Thai food traits, such as noodle-based foods with salty tastes, and had a preference for fried food over boiled food. They did not, however, appreciate coconut milk being used in recipes.

Receiving 17% of Thailand’s THB231bn (US$6.5bn) food shipments to Asean, Myanmar is the country’s leading regional importer, and offers significant potential for processed foods and beverage exporters, Yongvut said.

"Euromonitor predicted that the average growth of the market for processing foods in Myanmar between 2014 and 2018 will be about 15% per annum​," he said.

"However, the market growth of non-alcohol beverages in Myanmar is as high as 23% per year over the period​.”

'Indonesia needs licence overhaul to attract foreign investors'

Indonesia’s byzantine personal and corporate registration processes are putting off overseas food and beverage investors, according to the industry’s representative body. 


Adhi Lukman, chairman of the Food and Beverages Businesses Association, said a simpler bureaucratic system is required to attract more companies to the country.

"Starting from something simple, like residential permit. This permit is used to make a taxpayer registration number, trade licence, and company registration certificate​," he explained, adding that construction and location licences should also be simplified. 

Adhi called on the government to overhaul its current system to guarantee a smoother transition for companies arriving in Indonesia.

"Hopefully, the regional and central government could synergise because the central government’s will to [facilitate licensing] has been carried out​," he said.

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