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Inventors of Life-Saving Golden Rice Receive Prestigious Patents for Humanitarian Award

April 21, 2015
On Monday, April 21, 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced the recipients of the 2015 Patents for Humanity Award.  Among the winners, scientists from the Golden Rice Project were honored with a humanitarian award for their work in developing a food that could save the lives of millions around the world.

Dr. Adrian Dubock, who as a former scientist at the agro-chemicals company Syngenta, helped arrange for the intellectual property behind the research to be made available free of charge to developing countries.  Dr. Dubock shares the prize with its two co-inventors, Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany, who granted Syngenta the rights to develop the technology.

In order to achieve Golden Rice, the scientists genetically modified the rice plant to produce and accumulate provitamin A (β-carotene) in the grain, something that doesn't happen in naturally occurring rice plants.

As highlighted in the Independent, "Vitamin A deficiency is a leading killer of children globally, accounting for between 2m and 3m deaths per year, as well as causing about 500,000 cases of blindness annually. White rice is the main daily staple crop for about 3.5bn people in the world, even though it is deficient in vitamin A, which is typically found in meat and leafy vegetables."

"Supporters of golden rice said that it could have been introduced a decade ago but opposition by environmentalists has held up its regulatory approval, leading to the preventable death and blindness of tens of millions of people."

In fact, a recent analysis by Professor Justus Wesseler, Scott Kaplan, and Professor David Zilberman suggests that the delayed introduction of Golden Rice for over a decade has been very costly both in monetary terms as well as the hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness and child deaths.

Specifically, the authors estimated that the number of  disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost because of the lack of availability of Golden Rice since 2002 to be between 1.4 and 2 million.  And based on a conservative assumption of a low value DALY (USD $500), they estimated that the net present value of a 10-year delay in the introduction of Golden Rice to be USD $707 million.  Most notably, they discovered that if assuming a minimum of a 20% global adoption of Golden Rice, from 2002 until today, 600,000 to 1.2 million cases of blindness, and in India alone, about 180,000 deaths of children could have been prevented.

Wesseler, Kaplan and Zilberman concluded in their analysis that political pressure by opponents to GE technology is likely to be one of the main causes for the delay of the introduction of golden rice into the agricultural economy.