The inventors of a rice genetically modified to combat Vitamin A blindness have signed a ground-breaking deal with AstraZeneca that will give Third World farmers free access to the grain, while allowing the life sciences company to sell it commercially in the developed world.
The agreement, due to be announced today, is the latest in a series of Third World-friendly moves by the biotech industry, anxious to improve its image at a time of unprecedented public hostility toward genetic engineering.
Professor Ingo Potrykus, who invented Vitamin A enriched "golden rice" with German compatriot Peter Beyer, said yesterday he hoped the agreement would be the first in a series of private-public partnerships involving crops important to the Third World.
"We need to find an alliance between business on the one hand and research on the other. I hope this example will make other companies think in the same way."
Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Swiss government and European Union, "golden rice" is the most high profile of a "second generation" of genetically-modified (GM) crops being developed in greenhouses and laboratories around the world.
Containing the pigment beta-carotene, which gives it a distinctive yellow colour, it is tailored to tackle the vitamin deficiency that blinds half a million people each year. Today's deal is being tagged by the signatories as a "win-win" arrangement which blends philanthropy with self-interest, allowing both partners - and millions of destitute smallholders to benefit.
Under the deal Zeneca Agrochemicals, the plant science division of the Anglo-Swedish company, buys commercial rights to "golden rice" from Greenovation, a small German company acting as intermediary for the inventors.
Zeneca then licenses "non-commercial" rights back to the inventors and undertakes to help them improve the grain, deal with patenting issues and guide "golden rice" through the costly testing and regulatory process.
The inventors will distribute the rice free to government-run breeding centres and agriculture institutes in China, India and other rice-dependent Asian nations. Local farmers will each be allowed to earn an annual $10,000 without paying royalties.
In exchange, Zeneca will commercialise golden rice in the developed world as one in a range of "functional foods" which analysts believe are poised to revolutionise eating habits among an increasingly health-obsessed population.
"Golden rice contains the anti-oxidant beta-carotene, and anti-oxidants have been shown to play a role in the fight against cancer and coronary disease," said Hadyn St Parry, Zeneca general manager. "We see it doing particularly well in Japan as a functional food."
Coming six weeks after the US biotech giant Monsanto announced it would be making a "working draft" of the rice genome freely available, today's "golden rice" deal is certain to be viewed with suspicion by anti-GM campaigners.
They regard the rice as the "secret weapon" of an industry which they claim is embracing the fight against world hunger in a bid to repair its damaged credibility.
But for those who hope to see the deal repeated with cassava, banana or sorghum, the agreement raises the crucial question of how easy establishing and maintaining a two-tier pricing system will prove.
In a world of porous borders and rampant smuggling, Zeneca executives admit policing at the micro-level will be impractical. The company, which will subsidise development in poorer countries from activities in the US and Japan, also risks annoying farmers in the developed world, already angered by differences in technology fees charged on GM soybeans in the US and Argentina.
"We're going to have to see how this plays out on the ground before we regard it as a model to be copied," a spokesman for the Rockefeller Foundation acknowledged yesterday.