High-iron rice

  • The need

  • What IRRI is doing

  • The potential impact

  • Resources

young boy smiling

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that 2 billion people—or about 30% of the world’s population—are anemic, many due to iron deficiency. A July 2013 article published in The Lancet confirmed that anemia is a risk factor for maternal death. The condition is exacerbated by hemorrhage, the leading cause (23%) of maternal deaths.

In developing countries, instances of iron deficiency anemia (IDA) are higher. Certain population groups, particularly women, children, and the elderly, are also more prone to developing IDA. In the Philippines, the National Nutrition Survey of 2008 revealed that IDA affected 19% of the national population.  IDA is highest among infants (56%), followed by pregnant women (43%) and the elderly (33%). For women and children, the main cause of IDA is an increased iron requirement coupled with very low dietary iron intake.

IDA not only affects the health of the individual but can also influence the overall productivity of the population. Estimates from WHO suggest that treatment of IDA can boost national productivity levels by up to 20%.

IRRI's rice fields

Most of the iron in the rice grain is accumulated in the external part of the grain. Consequently, the iron content of rice drops significantly after polishing. Thus, population groups who eat rice as a staple and consume minimal amounts of iron-rich food are likely to develop iron deficiency.

IRRI is using biotechnology approaches that safely and responsibly deliver additional benefits to farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through conventional breeding. One of these approaches is the genetic modification of rice to increase the iron concentration in the endosperm (the part of the rice grain retained after polishing). This approach also has the added benefit of simultaneously boosting zinc levels in the endosperm.

IRRI strives to ensure that the development of any genetically modified (GM) rice will be done in full compliance with national and international biosafety regulations. Advanced bioavailability studies will also be conducted prior to the public release of any GM rice variety to verify its effectiveness in reducing a particular micronutrient deficiency.

The potential impact of GM high-iron rice on child and maternal nutrition is very promising and can complement current dietary interventions to alleviate iron deficiency.


Rice is an important staple food and provides as much as 80% of the daily calorie intake of populations in developing countries. The majority of these populations consume rice as polished white grains, which contain low amounts of iron.

Biofortification offers the opportunity to increase the iron content of rice and thus elevate baseline iron levels in a large part of the population, especially those who are at risk of developing iron deficiency.