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Scientists have developed a strain of genetically modified (GM) 'golden rice', which they say could help reduce childhood blindness linked to vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

Compared to previous strains of golden rice — first unveiled in 1999 — the new variety produces 20 times more beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A.

Research centres in Asian countries will have free access to the new strain and, pending approval from their governments, could begin field trials of the rice within five years.

The environmental organisation Friends of the Earth says the GM rice offers a narrow solution to vitamin A deficiency, which is part of a broader malnutrition problem. Encouraging people to produce a range of crops and to eat a balanced diet would be more efficient, said a spokesperson for the group.

But the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, which is coordinating the research, argues that while the new rice does not offer the sole solution to vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, it could help to tackle the problem.

The World Health Organization estimates that, each year, vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in up to 500,000 children, most of whom are in developing countries.

The new rice was created in the United Kingdom by researchers at the biotechnology company Syngenta, who published their work in the latest issue of Nature Biotechnology.

Link to full BBC Online news story

Read more about GM crops in SciDev.Net's GM crops dossier.

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