A new vitamin-enriched rice variety is a step closer to helping the rural poor. Yesterday, agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto announced that researchers can freely use its patented technology to develop vitamin A-rich "golden rice" for the poor. The St. Louis-based company announced the giveaway at a meeting in Chennai, India.
Named for its yellow color, golden rice contains the genes needed to make beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A. Plant molecular biologist Ingo Potrykus from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich and Peter Bayer from the University of Freiburg in Germany developed the rice about a year ago to help the millions of people in the world suffering from vitamin A deficiency. This condition can cause blindness and reduces the body's ability to fight off illnesses such as measles or diarrhea.
Putting the new variety into the hands of farmers, however, has proven problematic. To commercialize the new rice, the researchers must get licenses from several companies to use about 50 patented biological tools and other pieces of intellectual property used to develop the rice. The cost would make the rice too expensive for most farmers in poor countries, which need vitamin-enriched crops the most.
Monsanto holds the rights to several patents, including a key piece of DNA, called the 35S promoter, used to promote activity of the beta-carotene genes. But the company now says it will forgo fees from those patents for golden rice destined for poor countries. The decision "saves having to negotiate" a special arrangement, says Gary Toenniessen, food security program director with the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the golden rice project.
Monsanto's move also sets a good example, Potrykus says. "I can use this to convince other companies to give up their [patent rights] related to golden rice."