In half of the world’s population, rice is a mainstay of everyday nutrition due to its relatively low cost, rich sources of energy, lack of gluten, ease of digestion, low fat content, and richness in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. However, many of these elements are lost when the bran on unmilled brown rice is stripped to produce white rice. And unfortunately, many developing countries do not have the resources to re-fortify rice after milling. Also, depending on the location, many soils where rice is grown are lacking in essential minerals.
To address these problems, the USDA has begun to work on a way of growing white rice in a way that gives it the same nutrients as brown rice. The USDA has teamed up with scientists in studying genes in rice that regulate the storage of minerals. Their ultimate goal? To breed new rice varieties that would hold high concentrations of 14 essential minerals (including zinc, iron and calcium) in the grains instead of in the husk.
The research team focused on several different population groups of rice, finding that certain rices contained up to nine times the amount of minerals that standard U.S. varieties contain. The team is also working on molecular marker data for use in quickly identifying the high-mineral plants without having to grow them to maturity. So far, they have identified 127 gene locations in 40 chromosome regions that indicate high concentrations of minerals.
But don’t worry about GMOs: the USDA does not plan on genetically engineering future breeds of rice. The data they discover will be handed over to plant breeders, and these breeders would create new varieties of rice by reproducing only the plants with the genes they want, just like humans have done for as long as they have been farming.