Bioprospecting is the search for and the commercialisation of new products that have been sourced from nature. While biopiracy is when researchers and scientists use sources from nature and traditional knowledge without permission and exploit the indigenous cultures they’re getting their information from.
Since the 1970s, The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have recognised the importance of utilising and integrating the knowledge of indigenous communities from around the world to improve global health. This has led to the global patenting of ingredients, drug development and product commercialisation.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) member states have to implement intellectual property rights protections; however, these processes are often beyond the understanding of indigenous communities and limit their access to legal rights.
The search for areas with the greatest biological diversity often leads to some of the world’s poorest countries, which end up being hit hardest by biopiracy.
There are many regulations that tie in with bioprospecting and biotechnology. These include:
Convention on Biological Diversity
The Convention on Biological Diversity was established in 1992 and entered into force in 1993 with 30 countries, including Australia, signing and ratifying it. The Convention is the international law that regulates the "the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources." Today the law has been ratified by 196 countries.
Its main mission is to encourage actions that will lead to a sustainable future. It covers ecosystems, genetic resources, and biotechnology.
It clarified the rights of indigenous people and local communities and set out to control the use of intellectual property and to establish equitable benefit sharing.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
The Australian Government’s environmental legislation that covers environmental assessment and approvals protects biodiversity and manages important natural and cultural locations.
Australia’s National Biotechnology Strategy
This strategy was announced in 2000 by Senator Nick Minchin, the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. The strategy covers:
- The contribution towards the development of high technology knowledge industries in accordance with bioprospecting, bioprocessing and other biotechnologies
- The impact that the growth of these technologies will have
- The ability to maximise the benefits through intellectual property rights that support the development of these industries in Australia
- The impacts on and the benefits to the environment
- Resolve legal issues on the ownership of Australian biological resources
- Address matters relating to indigenous people and their ownership of biological resources
The Nagoya Protocol
The Nagoya Protocol was adopted by the UN Convention on Biodiversity in 2010 and sets out to protect biodiversity and provides guidelines for how countries access and share biodiversity benefits.
Challenges and Concerns
Thanks to biotechnology, many natural resources like fungi, animals and plants have played a big part in the development of many life-saving and life-changing treatments. Bioprospecting is the practice of looking for these plants and animals. In recent years, bioprospecting has increasingly utilised indigenous knowledge about the use of biological resources.
One of the main problems related to bioprospecting is the issue of conservation. How can scientists and researchers ensure that the search for biological resources doesn’t result in ruining nature?
Another big issue around bioprospecting is biopiracy - that is when pharmaceutical companies use local knowledge about plants, animals and natural resources without acknowledging that it was originally the intellectual property of indigenous people. That means that the pharmaceutical companies end up with the profit and recognition, while the indigenous people get nothing in return for their work.
Although there are regulations in place to stop biopiracy, some of those regulations also have loopholes that can make the risk of biopiracy higher. For example:
- The International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): Although they have established commercial values for biodiversity in developing countries, it relies on representatives in different countries meaning that some representatives may not honour indigenous rights or have the power to protect biodiversity from private, wealthy companies.
- The Nagoya Protocol: Although the Nagoya Protocol covers important issues like global biodiversity, environmental and health justice and international Intellectual Property Rights Frameworks, they also fail to address the issues of representation, equitable compensation and drug access which are key concerns for indigenous communities.
International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG)
Some programs like the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) program of the National Institutes of Health insist that bioprospecting:
- Sets out to protect the biodiversity resources and actively avoids causing any damage
- Promotes host-country intellectual property rights and capacity building
- Searches for biological resources to use for profit
This program has been adopted by many research groups who are passionate about securing economic benefits for host countries and indigenous people and the promotion of biodiversity conservation.
Bioprospecting is one of the main ways to promote the development of medication that is available to the global population. However, the issues of biopiracy and sustainable biodiversity still mean that there are key issues that still need to be addressed.