The scourge of Biopiracy

Bio piracyWhile I was poking around online looking for material  to include in the latest Nestlé debacle,  I came across Edward Hammond,  an American scientist/policy researcher who’s also  the author of   the Third World Networks
Biopiracy Continues.

Bio piracy?  According to the Wikipedia,  it’s  the “the exploitative appropriation of indigenous forms of knowledge by commercial actors, as well as the search for previously unknown compounds in organisms that have never been used in traditional medicine.”

It’s yet another concept I hadn’t come across before,  but it looked interesting, so I continued reading Hammond’s  paper.

The report — it was to be published this yea –has examples of bio piracy including :  “food giant Nestlé claims to have invented stomach soothing use of  Nigella sativa”  which is, as I pointed out here,  a load of old bollocks.

In the introduction, Hammond states »»

This booklet compiles recent papers on biopiracy published by Third World Network. The cases described here span the developing world, from African and Middle Eastern medicinal plants to South American fruit, to Asian microbes, among others.

The genetic resources of these cases, claimed in patents and patent applications by corporations and universities, have uses in industry, agriculture, foods, and in pharmaceuticals and other health care products. For instance, an herbicide resistance gene from Bolivia poised to be sold in the United States by DuPont, one of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies. Or microbes, found in Malaysia by an academic bioprospector, and conveyed into the possession of a biotech company from California.

In many cases, the patent claimants show remarkable disrespect for traditional knowledge and developing country science. For example, Nestlé, the Swiss food giant, is attempting to lay claim to uses of a Middle Eastern medical plant that are widely documented in traditional medicine and dozens of studies by scientists from the region. Or Rutgers University, from the US, whose patent application on a West African and Sahelian tea bush blatantly appropriates traditional knowledge.

Another case of concern is a patent application by the Smithsonian Institution of the US over fungal biocontrol of Panamanian leafcutter ants.

The “invention” that the Smithsonian claims as its own was described years ago in papers by Latin American scientists from several countries, and the Smithsonian’s “inventors” were aware of this.

The cases also show a disregard for proper access and benefit sharing agreements among bioprospectors and other users of biodiversity. For instance, after filing no less than three patent applications on African plants, Rutgers University cannot produce material transfer agreements for the plants it has collected, and does not have a cogent benefit sharing plan. Another bioprospector patented a microbe isolated from a medicinal plant and sold it to Denmark’s Novo Nordisk before even trying to obtain proper informed consent of indigenous people, much less enter into a fully developed benefit sharing plan.

A European Union project is assimilating an enormous collection of seeds of wild relatives of the tomato plant from gene banks, and systematically probing them for valuable DNA. The valuable bits industry claims through patents – all without going back to the Latin American countries of origin of these plants to create a benefit sharing arrangement.

Together, these cases show that biopiracy continues as a problem, and that much remains to be done to stop it. Problems shown here, for instance the practical impossibility of distinguishing between “non-commercial” and “commercial” access to genetic resources, may be addressed by governments in their national legislation on access and benefit sharing, and through implementation of the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and suggestions are made as the individual cases highlight particular issues.


Jon Newton — myblogdammit

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