Preventing bio-piracy of genetic resources

DNA sample7 December 2011

By Susan Watt

It aims to stop 'bio-piracy', the theft of genetic resources and traditional knowledge – and the February 2012 deadline is fast approaching. Over one hundred countries are expected to sign up to the Nagoya Protocol, and ESRC-funded researchers have provided valuable input to the agreement.

The Nagoya Protocol is a new international agreement requiring that countries and communities providing genetic material reap a fair share of the benefits. Currently, the protocol is going through the process of becoming law, and researchers at the ESRC’s Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) have contributed in preparing the agreement.

Multinational companies have been using genetic material and traditional knowledge from developing countries as the basis for patents and commercial products, often without consultation with the countries or communities where they originated. Such theft – known as “misappropriation” in international debates – has made many communities reluctant to grant access to their resources, thereby stifling research.

The quest to solve the problem of bio-piracy was one of the legacies of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed at Rio in 1992. This states as one of its objectives the "fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources" – but it took another 18 years to reach agreement on how to do this.

The breakthrough came in October 2010 at the UN Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya, Japan, when international negotiators reached a last-minute agreement on the wording of the protocol. The effect of the Nagoya Protocol is to outlaw bio-piracy by providing a legally binding framework and code of conduct for the sourcing and use of genetic material.

Importantly, the protocol also places the traditional knowledge and medicines of indigenous people and local communities on a par with the natural resources themselves - requiring that this knowledge can only be used if informed consent is obtained in advance and the benefits are shared.

Cesagen researchers based at the universities of Cardiff and Lancaster have been providing research input to the negotiations since 2003. Dr Paul Oldham, a social anthropologist with expertise in biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples, was involved in drafting the legal text of the protocol.

"By ensuring that the providers of genetic resources share in the benefits, the protocol acts as an incentive for granting access. There’s always a trade-off here - access versus benefits," he says.

Currently, Dr Oldham and Cesagen colleagues are working on ways to help developing countries and indigenous communities monitor activity involving genetic resources and traditional knowledge themselves, based on the rights given in the protocol. To this end, they are devising IT tools to make data on biodiversity and intellectual property more easily managed.

"What we're doing is helping countries by developing systems to know if something is or isn’t being claimed as intellectual property”, says Dr Oldham.

"There are 1.9 million taxonomic species, and 6 million variations on species names, so it needs huge computing power to do this. So far we have searched 11 million patent documents. "

Key requirements of the Nagoya protocol include:

  • Benefit-sharing: The benefits derived from genetic resources must be shared fairly between those providing the resources and those collecting or using them. This must be done on mutually agreed terms.
  • Informed consent: Prior informed consent from the owners of genetic resources, including indigenous communities, must be obtained before access is allowed.
  • Traditional knowledge: Traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources held by indigenous and local communities is subject to the same requirements as the genetic resources themselves.
  • Respect for local customs: The laws and customs of indigenous and local communities should be respected when obtaining and using genetic resources.
  • Conservation: Benefits from the use of genetic resources should contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • Technology transfer: Research should be a co-operative endeavor and should encourage transfer of technology to developing countries.

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