Increasing or reducing access to Genetic Resources?

Wednesday 22 March 2006

Here in Curitiba, environmentalists argue Brazil’s rich biodiversity must be protected from biopiracy.

An international convention is needed to regulate access to genetic resources (that is make access more difficult), then national governments can regulate the benefits (that is ensure more benefits go to nationals than foreigners)

Brazilian Greens justify this on the grounds that foreigners are biopirates, earn profits from Brazilian genetic resources and deny Brazil its entitlement to profit from its own genetic resources.

Unfortunately, the proposed Convention would decrease not increase benefits for Brazil and other developing countries. There would be less access to genetic resources. And it would weaken the economic capacity of countries to reduce poverty.

Unsupported by facts

There is no evidence that Brazil or anyone has massive undiscovered lodes of "Green Gold" or that there is one case of illegal removal of genetic resources from any country.

The number of instances where great financial benefits have flowed from commercialization of natural genetic resources are small. Science can now create almost any compound and engineer any gene in the laboratory.

Research by the Australian APEC Study Centre at Monash University [1] revealed that there are virtually no cases of biopiracy (defined as forcible and illegal removal of property) as claimed by the Secretariat to the Convention on Biodiversity, UNEP and non-governmental organizations like the Third World Network.

"Biopiracy" is used to mean something else. Most commonly it is used to mean either the misuse of intellectual property (when patents or trademarks are erroneously issued) or that foreigners are securing access to genetic resources.

Misuse of intellectual property law is not biopiracy

Good intellectual property only allows patents where there is invention and will not allow trademarks for ordinary things. When this occurs, such misuse can be challenged.

Three years ago, the Japanese trademark office issued a trademark for Acia, a fruit native to Brazil. This was contested and the trademark was withdrawn.

India and Thailand objected when W R Grace, a U.S.-based chemical company patented a product based on the natural insecticide properties of the Neem tree. In its natural state, the insecticide had a short shelf life. The company patented a method of extending the shelf life by several weeks. India challenged the patent, but the U.S. Patent Office held the process was an invention and could be patented.

The extent of such misuse is small. It does not need a new international convention to stop it. Opportunities for redress already exist.

If foreign transfer of genetic resources is "Biopiracy", so is international trade.

If use in a foreign market of a product secured in another market constitutes biopiracy, then all foreign trade is biopiracy.

It is up to any country to favor nationals over foreigners in business. This applies in all business, not just that using genetic resources.

It is not wise, especially in research and development. The best way to secure new technology is to encourage foreign investment and research. Nevertheless it is every country’s sovereign right. No international convention is needed to create that right.

Controls against so-called "biopiracy" will stop domestic researchers

The proposed convention on access and benefit sharing will not only stop access to genetic resources by foreigners, it will also stop access by national researchers and companies.

Excessive regulation stopped bioprospecting in the Philippines, Peru and Colombia.

Over regulation in an international convention will have the same effect.

How to increase Access and Benefits

Members of the CBD can improve national laws to create right of access to genetic resources. They can provide rights for providers (including indigenous peoples) to negotiate terms with providers.

Many countries do not have laws which support this.

An international regime which encouraged improvement of national laws instead of regulating access would be the most effective action members of the Convention on Biodiversity can take.

Source: The Australian APEC Study Centre

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