The State of the World's Children Report 2001 says that 58 per cent of the children under the age of three are malnourished in India. One of the major diseases of malnutrition is blindness in children, caused by the deficiency of vitamin A.
According to a study done by an NGO, Micronutrient Initiatives, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a problem in the most of the states in India. Studies carried in two states namely Gujarat and West Bengal indicate that 40 per cent of the children have subclinical deficiency of vitamin A, with many having symptoms like eyes nearly popping out.
Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness, permanent blindness and severe diarrhea and even infant mortality. Carotenoids (pro-vitamin A) are present in number of vegetables and fruit such as carrots, tomatoes, oranges, spinach, and mangoes. Fortification of food is one way of increasing the Vitamin A content. Fortification of vanasapati, milk, flour is already being undertaken. Micronutrient Initiative is also planning fortification of sugar and rice with Vitamin A.
Now, the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) has launched a project with support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to enhance beta-carotene (Vitamin A) content in mustard oil, an extensively used cooking medium. TERI researchers feel that if the Vitamin A content in the oil can be increased significantly, even a teaspoon of this oil in the diet could provide the recommended daily intake of beta-carotene for an adult.
While large doses of Vitamin A can be toxic, studies clearly indicated that when ingested in the form of beta-carotene (pro-Vitamin A), it is not toxic. Studies show that one-fourth of total beta-carotene consumed is converted to Vitamin A in the human body.
Another private company, Monsanto, has developed the technology to enhance the levels of beta-carotene in rapeseed oil (canola). The company has been able to insert a phytoene synthase gene into the seed to generate the extra amounts of Vitamin A in only the seed. These seeds, when crushed to produce the oil, have levels of beta-carotene that are greater than currently available in any other oil or vegetable.
TERI will collaborate with Monsanto to adapt and transfer this technology into mustard, a crop species closely related to canola. Subsequent phases of the project will include in-depth evaluation of the effectiveness of the new oil, safety studies for regulatory approval and development of strategies to introduce this oil into the diet of affected children. This will be done in collaboration with the National Institute of Nutrition.
Monsanto officials felt the technology will not face patent problem since most of the patents for the genes were held by them. The company also felt that this was a philanthropic project mainly to leverage Monsanto's technology to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency in India.
Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.