Rice with a vitamin and without patents
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Rice with a vitamin and without patents

Every one of us probably had known an obsession with a certain idea. It is especially often case with scientific workers. Ingo Potrykus, when in 1980 became a professor of the Swiss Federal Technological Institute, had an idea of three billion people depending with their nutrition on rice, and he was especially worried for one tenth of them who suffer a lack of vitamin A resulting often in blindness. The saddest fact is it is mostly children. Their poverty does not allow them to get another food as a source of vitamin A, not mentioning its pharmaceutical form. Potrykus had grown up in the post-war destroyed Germany and he was familiar with hunger quite well when he was a child.

His idea was to put in rice such a group of genes that would produces vitamin A in grains. At the Freiburg University, Peter Beyer worked - an expert of biological synthesis of vitamin A. Those two scientists met at a conference once and then a project was developed. The project started Rockefeller Foundation in 1993 with 100,000 USD. That enabled to build a seven-year program with a budget of 2,6 million USD. The Swiss government and EU took the patronage. A team, lead by Prof. Potrykus and Dr. Beyer, succeeded in installing several genes in rice, including genes from bacteria and daffodils. In spring 1999 when Ingo Potrykus celebrated his 65, a genetically modified "golden rice" was born - rice containing vitamin A not only in its green parts but also in endosperm of seeds, which is the starchy part we eat. Because vitamin A has a red color, the peeled rice is golden-yellow and hence its name.

It would seem that - nowadays already an emeritus professor - Potrykus and Peter Beyer has reached their goal: this rice will interbreed with local varieties and the resulting crop-plant will be sown and harvested by local poor farmers. This was the terrible consequences of the A avitaminosis will be removed. It showed not to be so simple. When developing "golden rice", its authors had to use genes and procedures developed by other companies with great expenses. Those companies want to get back that money and that is why they had the genes and the procedures patented. The common practice is to require royalties as soon as a product obtained with a help of an invention is commercialized. The circle would close this way: avitaminosis that is a consequence of poverty cannot be removed with "golden rice" because poverty hinders its utilization.

Professor Potrykus did not give up though. He started to negotiate with the patent owners. He has reached a certain compromise with London company AstraZeneca PLC, that agreed to waive the royalties in case of utilization of the golden rice in poor developing countries in exchange for a right to sell golden rice to farmers in rich countries. A fundamental breakthrough happened only this year on 3 August - Monsanto company, at an agricultural conference in India, declared it renounces its claims to patents connected to genetically modified golden rice to speed up its implementation. Professor Potrykus hopes this historic breakthrough will encourage the rest of the patents-owners to do similar. He has just one worry: pressure groups exist interested in spreading an aversion against genetically modified crops in the developing world. If their propaganda prevents a proper expansion of golden rice, they take all the moral responsibility for tragic health consequences of the avitaminosis.

Jaroslav Drobník

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