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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


December 2007

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Bioprospecting: Tracking the Policy Debate

Bioprospecting—the exploration of biological material for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical properties—has sparked the public and policy imaginations in recent decades. Located at the interface of leading genetic and information technologies, it promises a lot: new drugs to cure diseases; innovative cosmetic, food, plant, and healthcare products; technology for developing countries; incentives to conserve biodiversity in poor countries; and potentially rich rewards for those providing the biological material and knowledge.

Fifteen years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, countries negotiated an agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity, which they anticipated would bring these benefits. But today, both providers and users of genetic resources find themselves caught up in an environment characterized by misunderstanding, mistrust, and regulatory confusion. Cries of “biopiracy” abound from those concerned about the misappropriation of biological resources and knowledge without the consent of traditional knowledge holders or countries of origin. On the other side of the debate, industry proponents and scientists vent frustration about the bureaucracies created by new regulations and perceived hurdles to research placed by biodiversity-rich countries. Now scientists, industry stakeholders, policymakers, and traditional communities are negotiating anew in an attempt to develop an international “access and benefit-sharing” regime that many hope will resolve some of these intractable issues.

In today’s hyperconnected world, the debate is highly germane. Earlier this year Indonesia, which has had more human cases of avian flu than any other country, stopped sending samples of the H5N1 virus to the World Health Organization (WHO) on the grounds that it required a more equitable system of access to vaccines for developing countries. Although this decision was reversed after WHO agreed to develop a new global mechanism for virus sharing that would be fairer to poorer nations, the case has catapulted access to genetic resources and benefit sharing onto the global agenda. How can we make sure that the biological riches of the Earth remain accessible for scientific exploration and research while ensuring that their commercial development yields benefits that are distributed fairly and equitably (“access and benefit sharing”)? How can a balance be struck between conducting and regulating ethical science? How does the increasing privatization of biodiversity affect food and health security? And who has the right to own innovations on biological resources: countries from which those resources originate, traditional knowledge holders, and/or the companies that develop these resources and this knowledge into products? An evolving policy process has sought to address these questions over the past 15 years, but it grapples with many difficult issues still today.

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