Firm Adds Vitamin To Rice

By Brett Chase
May 17, 2000
The Philadelphia Inquirer

AstraZeneca P.L.C. said it has obtained technology to develop a genetically engineered rice that could help boost the level of Vitamin A in people who eat it.

The rice could be one of the first foods genetically engineered to benefit the consumer; crops so far have been altered to fight pests, weeds and disease. The company said the vitamin-rich rice would be made available first in Asia, Africa and South America, where children suffer from malnutrition.

AstraZeneca, of London, and rivals have said opinions on genetically modified foods will be more favorable if consumers can see benefits, such as creating more nutritious food. AstraZeneca and other companies develop-ing genetically altered crops have faced consum-er resistance, especially in Europe and Japan.

"Consumers wanted to see the benefit before they went off and tried" genetically engineered foods, said James Wilbur, an analyst with Salomon Smith Barney.

AstraZeneca agreed with the European scien-tists who hold the patent on the genetically engineered rice, also known as "golden rice," to develop and distribute free seeds to millions of peasant farmers as early as 2003. It is unclear where the first bags of rice will go, although more than half of the world's 62 million acres are grown in China and India.

As part of its agreement to fund the research and give away the seeds, AstraZeneca has the right to commercial use of the rice and can develop the technology for other crops Company officials hope to sell the rice by 2005.

Peter Beyer of Freiburg, Germany, a scientist who shares a patent on the big-engineered rice, said other companies had been interested in developing the crop, but only AstraZeneca agreed to distribute the rice free to poor farmers. The research was funded initially by the Rock-efeller Foundation of the United States, the Swiss government and the European Union.

"Other companies lacked the sensitivity about the topic," Beyer said.

The announcement comes as AstraZeneca, which has its U.S. headquarters in Wilmington, is about to create a powerhouse agricultural company. AstraZeneca and Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG agreed in December to merge their agricultural businesses and spin the unit off. into a company to be called Syngenta.

Syngenta would be the world's largest farm-chemicals company, with combined sales of $7.9 bil-lion. The formation of Syngenta, which is awaiting government approvals in the United States and Europe expected later this year, also is likely to form a formidable competitor in agricultural biotech-nology.

AstraZeneca and Novartis are among seven firms that began a $5U million advertising and education campaign in the United States to promote the genetic engineering of foods. The others are U.S. compa-nies Dow Chemical Co., DuPont Co. and Pharmacia Corp.'s Monsanto unit; France's Aventis SA; and Ger-many's BASF AG.

The technology involves transplanting a gene from one source, such as soil bacteria, to a food crop to give it characteristics that could never be accomplished through traditional breeding. In the case of the golden rice, scientists would take two genes from daffodils and a gene from soil bacterium and put them into the rice to boost the level of beta-carotene which the human body converts into vitamin A.

As many as 2 million children die and as many as S00,000 children be-come blind each year because they don't have enough vitamin A in their diets, Beyer said.

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