A leading biotechnology firm will introduce vitamin-enhanced rice in the Third World without charging its normal royalties, a move to blunt criticism of genetically engineered crops and foods.
Zeneca, a unit of Britain's AstraZeneca, is working to make genetically altered "golden rice," rich in vitamin A, available throughout the developing world, where it could be on tables as soon as 2003.
Golden rice gets vitamin A from beta carotene, which is produced in the grain as a result of genes implanted from a daffodil and a bacterium. Vitamin A deficiencies are blamed for contributing annually to the deaths of 2 million children under age 5. Lack
of vitamin A also leads to blindness in an estimated 500,000 children each year.
The move is "a gift" to the world's poor countries, says Bob Woods, president of Zeneca's U.S. agricultural division.
Zeneca will help governments and scientists in Asia, Africa and Latin America engineer beta carotene into local rice varieties, conduct safety tests and gain regulatory approval so the new grain can move quickly to poor farmers.
For the company, it represents "an opportunity to talk about biotechnology and food in a positive sense and counter some of the things that have been going on in the past 18 months," Woods says.
The biotechnology industry has been under siege from opponents who argue that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in crops could be dangerous to humans and the environment.
Restaurant chains, food producers, seed developers and grocery retailers have been hit with anti-GMO shareholder resolutions from environmentalists, religious groups, Third World advocates and others.
Monsanto announced last month plans to share for free its detailed research on the genetic makeup of rice. That could speed development of more nutritious and higher-yielding rice. Along with Zeneca's move, it could also soften resistance to GMOs in the developing world, where safety fears take a back seat to concern that multinationals
will be able to own and control the food supply.
"It's a bid to quell objections about biotechnology by giving it some sort of humanitarian spin," says Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public-interest lobby. "I don't think we can depend on the largesse of companies for very long."
Golden rice was developed by two European scientists. Zeneca licensed the patent and plans to commercialize the grain for sale in North America and Japan.
The added beta carotene also holds promise for people who aren't malnourished. It is believed to give rice cancer-fighting properties and other health benefits.