Biopiracy: the struggle for equity in the scientific exploitation of natural resources

Biopiracy: the struggle for equity in the scientific exploitation of natural resources

The countries of the South demand that rich nations share the benefits of the biological resources extracted from their lands which are then used for medical, agricultural or industrial purposes. Known as “biopiracy”, the issue is a major stumbling block at the UN’s COP15 talks on biodiversity.

In 2016, Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva spoke at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, explaining the problematic practice of seed patenting in simple terms.

“A patent is the right of an inventor to prohibit anyone from making, using, selling, distributing what is invented. The problem is, when it comes to seeds, seeds are not an invention,” she said, explaining that seeds had been traded long before patents came along.

“But then you come to me and take the seed. And then you patent it and say, “I created it and now you’re paying me royalties. It’s biopiracy.

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Natural resources such as seeds, plants, animals, and even chemical compounds found in bioresource-rich countries have long been extracted by wealthy nations during times of colonization, when empires stole the territories they occupied.

Patented and exported, these resources have led to revolutionary discoveries in medicine, agriculture and cosmetics. Many of these discoveries would not have been possible without relying on the traditional knowledge of local indigenous communities, which has often been unaccredited and uncompensated.

Today, with the advent of technological advances such as digital sequencing information (DSI), where genetic data of bioresources are digitized and stored online, the issue of biopiracy has become more complex.

It’s a roadblock so thorny it could stifle the global deal on nature loss being negotiated at the UN’s COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal.

The Nagoya Protocol and the Quassia Amara Affair

At the heart of the debate around biopiracy is the question of ownership and benefit sharing. Why should rich, tech-rich countries get the lion’s share of the benefits when they exploit lands that are less rich, but extremely rich in biodiversity?

This is a question that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has attempted to answer since 1993, when it entered into force. One of the three objectives defined by the CBD was “the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”. But the CBD did not prevent cases of biopiracy from occurring after its creation.

In 2005, for example, French researchers published preliminary results of their trips to French Guiana – a former colony – where they conducted interviews to learn more about local remedies for malaria. Ten years later, the French Research and Development Institute (IRD) obtained a patent from the European Patent Office for a compound derived from the Quassia Amara plant native to parts of Central and South America.

That same year, in 2015, the Danielle Mitterand Foundation filed an appeal against the patent, claiming that the institute had committed an act of biopiracy by “appropriating traditional knowledge” and not “recognizing the contribution of indigenous populations. and local research”.

Although researchers discovered the antimalarial compound in the plant using an alcohol-based extraction, rather than traditional infusion of the plant in tea, it was local knowledge that guided scientists to Quassia Amara in the first place. .

French Guiana and the IRD eventually entered into a retroactive agreement in which the IRD would share any potential scientific and economic benefit derived from the compound. But in 2018, the European Patent Office ruled that the IRD could keep the patent, meaning it could still ban local communities from using the remedy.

What is interesting is that just one year before the IRD obtained the patent, an international agreement intended to regulate access to biodiversity and the sharing of benefits entered into force. Known as the Nagoya Protocol, it obliges countries to share the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources in a fair and equitable manner. Although the agreement is legally binding, it is not retroactive, so research carried out by French scientists in 2005 was not covered.

Only 137 states worldwide have ratified the document. Countries like the United States, Canada and Russia have not.

Complexities of digital genetic data

Digital sequence information (DSI) of genetic data stored online in public databases has been revolutionary for many reasons. It has led to the discovery of new HIV therapies, the creation of genetically modified organisms and even dramatically accelerated the creation of Covid-19 tests and vaccines.

But with these technological advances come more complications, especially when it comes to benefit sharing. The benefits of research using bioresources are supposed to return to the country of origin in order to preserve its biodiversity. With DSI, traceability becomes blurred.

Dr Amber Hartman Scholz, a senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ in Germany and an expert in digital sequencing information, says the question of whether the benefits of digital data should be shared “has been a gray area”.

With or without patents, Scholz says, scientists are required to disclose and upload their data — including digital sequence information — to public databases. So when a patent is filed and the DSI is published, that creates tensions.

Countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have argued that open-source digital sequence information has become a loophole for big pharma to avoid sharing profits from their flora and fauna. native.

“Southern countries say they won’t accept global diversity framework [the COP15 agreement] if they don’t get a deal [benefits from] DSI and the Global North say they won’t agree to a deal on DSI if the South doesn’t agree to the framework,” says Scholz. It’s a catch 22.

The concern may stem from existing loopholes in the Nagoya Protocol. Although the agreement obliges countries to equitably share the benefits derived from genetic resources, some countries do not regulate access to their genetic resources. This creates a disadvantage for countries with stricter regulations and benefit-sharing agreements.

“It’s an incoherent international system,” Scholz argues. “Commercial interests will find the path of least resistance and go to countries like Germany where there are very few restrictions. This means that countries where the resource might come from will lose benefit sharing.

But there is hope. Ahead of COP15, a union of African countries proposed creating a system to levy a 1% tax on the retail prices of all biodiversity-related products to support the biodiversity conversation on the ground. Scholz believes the proposal is “groundbreaking”, a possible solution where the same rules would apply to every country.

“The biggest challenge is to convince everyone that this is the right decision, especially at a time when inflation is on the rise,” warns Scholz.

COP15 ends on December 19, when negotiators will need to reach a common agreement.

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