|Life Industry: Biodiversity, People and Profits (WWF, 1996)|
|Part 2 - The practice- bioprospecting or biopiracy?|
|4. Green gold|
Bilateral deals drawn up between bioprospectors and the countries or communities of origin of genetic resources are becoming increasingly common as a mechanism for sharing the benefits of bioprospecting activities. The 1991 Merck-INBio agreement was the first such deal to be struck. It is now just one of a rapidly growing number of bioprospecting ventures. Japan has launched a major biodiversity research programme in Micronesia, the US National Institutes of Health is screening wild species for compounds active against HIV and cancer, and both Indonesia and Kenya are establishing inventory programmes similar to INBio's, and are exploring possible biodiversity prospecting activities.
Three main forces have prompted the emergence of such deals. Firstly, natural products are back in fashion for industry. Genetic and biochemical resources have long been important raw materials in agriculture and medicine, but recent technological advances in biotechology have opened up new frontiers for genetic resource use. The renewed interest in biological compounds has stimulated a search for sample material from almost the entire range of life forms, in every corner of the globe. Tropical corals are being screened for anti-inflammatory potential, soils for antibiotic activity, shark bile for anti-acne properties, and so on.
The second push has come from the growing acceptance that genetic resources are not a freely available global commodity and that equity and ethical issues must be addressed in bioprospecting activities. Over the last ten years several international agreements and treaties have forced attention to be paid to these issues. The extent to which these issues have been taken on board by policymakers is reflected in the fact that part of the Biodiversity Convention's remit is to establish a policy framework for bioprospecting activities addressing the issues of ethics and equity.
The third force is the growing recognition of the economic value of biodiversity, the threat of genetic erosion and the need for conservation globally.
The new bioprospecting deals are seen by their promoters as 'win-win-win' opportunities to address these three issues. Corporations and research institutions gain from the exploitation of biodiversity's green gold, while the countries and communities which provide the raw materials and knowledge supposedly share in the profits and are compensated for the loss of their genetic heritage. In addition, part of the compensation package is used to ensure biodiversity conservation in the host country.
There is a clear need for the regulation of bioprospecting activities given the surge in interest from the commercial sector (see Table 2.1), for environmental reasons as well as equity and ethics In Kenya, nearly three tonnes of the widespread shrub Maytenus buchanani, source of the anticancer drug maytansine, was harvested as part of a screening programme undertaken by the US National Cancer Institute. When additional material was required four years after the initial harvesting, regeneration had been so poor that collectors had difficulty in obtaining it.
Bioprospecting initiatives such as the Merck-INBio deal are gaining popularity among policy makers, scientists and companies, particularly those in the North. But there is vigorous opposition from some NGOs and from indigenous communities. Their concerns range from practical considerations about who should receive the benefits, to the ethics of commodifying life.