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Friday, 4 August, 2000, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
GM rice patents given away
hands holding rice grains
'Golden rice' could offer hope to millions of people
By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The biotechnology giant Monsanto has announced it will give away the patents to a genetically modified rice grain that could help stop blindness and malnourishment.

It says it will provide royalty-free licences to help the development of "golden rice" and other rice varieties with enhanced pro-vitamin A.

This could be a public relations exercise designed to gain acceptance for GM crops

Adrian Bebb, Friends of the Earth
The lack of vitamin A is estimated to lead to a million child deaths a year and 300,000 cases of blindness.

Monsanto is also opening its rice genome sequence database to researchers around the world.

The company's actions, which it says are "for the common good", have won the cautious approval of environmental campaigners.

Golden rice is anything but a (public relations) stunt

Monsanto spokesman, Tony Combes
Previously, the company has been fiercely criticised by opponents of genetically modified (GM) crops for its role in developing them.

Monsanto, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Pharmacia, made the announcement at an agricultural biotechnology symposium in India.

Helping research

The company said it would "provide royalty-free licences for all of its technologies that can help further development of "golden rice" and other pro-vitamin A-enhanced rice varieties.

paddy field
Rice genome data will be available
"Successful development and adoption of enhanced rice could help millions of people suffering from vitamin A deficiencies."

Golden rice, so-called from its distinctive colour, contains beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

Monsanto also announced that it had launched a website called Rice-research, opening its rice genome sequence database to researchers around the world.

Vitamin A
Essential for immune system
Deficiency affects more than 100m children ...
... and is responsible for up to one quarter of child deaths in affected areas
Providing Vitamin A can increase survival rates by about 23%
Source: Unicef
Monsanto described its initiatives as "part of the company's ongoing commitment to global agricultural research, aimed at facilitating the use of its technologies and data for the common good."

One of the company's most committed United Kingdom critics, the campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE), gave the plans a modest endorsement.

Adrian Bebb of FoE told BBC News Online: "They are a welcome development, though we shall certainly be looking hard at the small print.

"Monsanto is a huge corporation which has to make money for its shareholders. We have to be careful in case this is a public relations exercise designed to gain acceptance for GM crops."

Serious initiative

A Monsanto spokesman, Tony Combes, told BBC News Online: "Seeing is believing. The website is what we promised last April - we're delivering it in August.

"On the wider issue of whether this is all a PR stunt, the whole business of golden rice is anything but a stunt."

In March 1999 Monsanto joined the Global Vitamin A Partnership, which includes the US Agency for International Development, the World Health Organisation, and the UN Children's Fund, Unicef.

Unicef says vitamin A deficiency is an easily preventable cause of child death.

drying rice in field
Better rice offers better health
"Every year, 11.3 million children under five years old die in the developing world, more than six million of them directly or indirectly from malnutrition. Millions more children are malnourished.

"The problem of vitamin A deficiency affects more than 100 million children and is responsible for as many as one out of every four child deaths in regions, countries and communities where the problem exists.

"In recent years, new scientific studies have shown that ensuring children have enough vitamin A can increase their chances of survival by about 23%, because vitamin A is essential for the immune system to function properly."

Last month, the US National Academy of Sciences, and colleagues from six similar institutions in other countries, urged biotechnology companies to license their technologies for use in the developing world.

The International Rice Research Institute said Monsanto's decision to open its database to researchers was "an important step" that would benefit poor rice farmers and consumers.

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See also:

11 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
GM companies 'should share data'
30 May 00 | Health
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17 May 00 | Sci/Tech
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14 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
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