Biopirat: The battle for justice within the scientific exploitation of pure sources
Nations from the International South demand that wealthy nations share the advantages of the organic sources extracted from their lands which are then used for medicinal, agricultural or industrial functions. Referred to as “biopiracy”, the problem is a significant roadblock on the UN’s COP15 talks on biodiversity.
2016, Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva spoke at Arizona State College’s International Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, explains the problematic follow of seed patenting in layman’s phrases.
“A patent is the right of an inventor to exclude someone else from making, using, selling, distributing what has been invented. The problem is that when it comes to seeds, seeds are not inventions,” she stated, happening to elucidate that seeds had been changed lengthy earlier than the patents got here.
“But then you come to me and take the seed. And then you patent it and say, “I created it and now you pay me royalties.” It’s movie piracy.”
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Natural resources such as seeds, plants, animals and even chemical compounds found in bioresource-rich countries have long been extracted by rich nations during periods of colonization, when empires would steal from the territories they occupied.
Patented and exported, such resources have led to breakthrough discoveries in medicine, agriculture, even cosmetics. Many of these discoveries would not have been possible without benefiting from the traditional knowledge of local indigenous peoples, who have often been unaccredited and uncompensated.
Now with the advent of technological advancements like digital sequencing information (DSI), where genetic data from bioresources is digitized and stored online, the issue of biopiracy has become more complex.
It’s a roadblock so severe it could suffocate the global deal on nature loss being negotiated at the UN’s COP15 biodiversity conference taking place in Montreal.
The Nagoya Protocol and the case of Quassia Amara
At the core of the debate around biopiracy is the question of ownership and distribution of distribution. Why should rich, technology-rich countries get the lion’s share of the benefits when extracting from less rich, but extremely biodiverse, lands?
It is a question Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) tried to address as far back as 1993, when it came into force. One of the three goals set out by the CBD was “the truthful and equitable distribution of the advantages arising from the utilization of genetic sources.” But CBD did not prevent cases of biopiracy from occurring after it was established.
In 2005, for example, French researchers published preliminary results of their trips to French Guiana—a former colony—where they conducted interviews to learn more about local antimalarial remedies. Ten years later, the French Institute for Research and Development (IRD) was granted a patent by the European Patent Office for a compound derived from the Quassia Amara plant native to parts of Central and South America.
In the same year, 2015, the Danielle Mitterand Foundation appealed against the patent, claiming the institute had committed biopiracy by “appropriating conventional data” and failing to “acknowledge the contributions of indigenous and native populations to analysis”.
Although researchers had discovered the antimalarial compound in the plant using alcohol-based extraction, rather than through traditional brewing of the plant into tea, it was local knowledge that led researchers to Quassia Amara in the first place.
French Guiana and the IRD eventually agreed to a retroactive agreement in which the IRD would share all potential scientific and financial benefits from the association. But in 2018, the European Patent Office ruled that the IRD could keep the patent, meaning it could still ban local communities from using the remedy.
What is interesting is that just one year before the IRD was granted the patent, an international agreement intended to regulate access to biodiversity and benefit sharing entered into force. Known as The Nagoya Protocol, it requires countries to share benefits arising from the use of genetic resources in a fair and equitable manner. Although the agreement is legally binding, it is not retroactive, so the research carried out by French researchers in 2005 was not covered.
Only 137 states worldwide have ratified the document. It does not have countries like the USA, Canada and Russia.
Complexities of digital genetic data
The digital sequence information (DSI) of genetic data stored online in public databases has been revolutionary for many reasons. It has led to the discovery of new HIV therapies, the creation of genetically modified organisms and even greatly accelerated the creation of Covid-19 tests and vaccines.
But with these technological advances come more complications, especially when it comes to distribution sharing. Benefits from research exploiting bioresources are intended to go back to the country of origin to preserve its biodiversity. With DSI, traceability becomes blurred.
Dr. Amber Hartman Scholz, a top researcher at Germany’s Leibniz Institute DSMZ and an expert on digital sequencing information, says the question of whether benefits should be shared with digital data “has been a grey space.”
With or without a patent, Scholz explains, researchers are required to disclose and upload their data—including digital sequence information—to public databases. So when a patent is filed and the DSI is published, this creates tension.
Countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have argued that open source digital sequence information has become a loophole for big pharmaceuticals to avoid sharing profits from their native flora and fauna.
“The Global South says it will not agree to the Global Diversity Framework [the COP15 agreement] if they don’t get an agreement [benefits from] DSI, and Global North say they will not agree to an agreement on DSI if the South does not agree to the framework, explains Scholz. It’s a catch 22.
The concern may stem from existing shortcomings in the Nagoya Protocol. Although the agreement requires countries to share benefits derived from genetic resources fairly, some countries do not regulate access to their genetic resources. This creates a disadvantage for countries with stricter regulations and benefit-sharing agreements.
“It is an inconsistent worldwide system,” Scholz argues. “Commercial interests will find the path of least resistance and go to countries like Germany where there are very few restrictions. This means that countries where the resource can come from will lose out on the distribution.”
However there’s hope. Forward of COP15, a union of African nations has proposed making a system to gather a 1% tax on the retail costs of all biodiversity-related merchandise to help the biodiversity dialog on the bottom. Scholz considers the proposal “revolutionary”, a doable resolution the place the identical guidelines would apply to each nation.
“The biggest challenge is to convince everyone that this is the right decision, especially at a time when inflation is on the rise,” warns Scholz.
COP15 ends on December 19, when negotiators should attain an settlement.