Golden Rice: For Sale, Or Free

Ron Rogers
Chemical & Engineering News, May 22, 2000, Voume 78, Number 21
Copyright © 2000 American Chemical Society

AstraZeneca has signed a collaboration with Germany's Greenovation under which a genetically modified new grain, -carotene-enriched "golden rice," will be available free of charge to the developing nations of the world.

Created by the insertion of genes from a daffodil and bacterium into the rice genome, the new strain contains high levels of -carotene, which is the precursor to vitamin A and which gives the rice its golden hue. "Golden rice has the potential to provide massive benefit," says Ed Ready, a spokesman for AstraZeneca. "It could prevent thousands of cases of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency." Lack of vitamin A causes 500,000
cases of blindness in developing countries each year, Ready points out.

However, there is a catch. "Golden rice was demonstrated as a construct in the greenhouse," Ready says. "We still need to introduce the characteristics into varieties of rice robust enough to grow in the field." AstraZeneca will fund commercial development of the product, after which it hopes to sell golden rice to farmers in Japan and the U.S., the world's top rice markets in terms of sales. And AstraZeneca will provide the commercial technology to the inventors--Ingo Potrykus, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and Peter Beyer, a researcher at
the University of Freiburg in Germany--who licensed the technology to Greenovation in an earlier deal. Potrykus and Beyer in turn will distribute it free of charge to farmers in developing countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

The partners don't believe the unusual color will affect consumer attitudes toward the product, and while they concede gene-modified foods have met fierce resistance in many countries, they seem less concerned that golden rice will meet the same type of opposition.

"Until now, new characteristics inserted in plants were designed to protect them from insects or herbicides," Ready says. "This time the characteristic is designed to benefit people."

On Dec. 2, AstraZeneca agreed with Novartis to divest and simultaneously merge their respective agricultural businesses to create a new company, called Syngenta, by late 2000.

"Golden rice is part of our AstraZeneca agriculture business," says Ready. "I assume it would become part of Syngenta." Golden rice is expected to be available for planting in 2003.