November 05, 2010

Biopiracy and the Convention on Biological Diversity

Biopiracy was one of the main questions at the recent Nagoya meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Science reports:
Advocates say there are hundreds if not thousands of examples of biopiracy: drugs, dietary supplements, and cosmetics based on traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plant and animal products that have been commercialized without authorization or any benefits being returned to local communities.
The Convention has now decided that "those seeking to use genetic resources or traditional knowledge for research or commercialization must obtain prior informed consent from both the country and indigenous communities involved and to agree on terms to share monetary and nonmonetary benefits, including intellectual property rights."

The same logic might apply to all knowledge and resources. Should Korean electronic businesses ask for consent from and "return" benefits to the peoples of Edinburgh, Cambridge, London and Great Britain for using knowledge produced by James Clerk Maxwell and others there? Should pharmaceutical companies selling penicillin "return" benefits to the dwellers of Paddington or London because its properties were discovered thanks to the Penicillium populations growing there?

I am very skeptical of the usefulness and morality of protecting intellectual property, although I admit that it may reward effort and risk-taking that are individually costly but socially desirable. I am even more skeptical of collective intellectual property rights because they will probably reward undeserving individuals at the expense of others and may encourage racism and other conflicts related to group membership. But, in any case, whether collective intellectual property rights are fair and welfare-enhancing is an empirical question. So, do current Londoners deserve a share of the benefits of Samsung and Shijiazhuang Shengqi Chemical Co? Would requiring consent from the London city council or the UK government to use knowledge of electromagnetics or byproducts of mould fungi benefit humanity?

Sharing benefits with local communities and national governments by law could perhaps encourage them to do more to preserve potentially useful traditional knowledge and biological resources. Perhaps the city of London would leave more food rotting on the streets to enhance potentially useful fungus biodiversity. On the other hand, by decreasing the returns to entrepreneurship, biostinginess laws would discourage people from developing useful products from traditional knowledge and biological resources, thus rendering them less valuable. It seems to me that this second effect is larger than the first because entrepreneurship is likely a more limiting factor in the development of new products than the availability of untapped traditional knowledge and biological resources, which is still huge. But I would like to know what actual quantitative estimates of these and other effects the Convention on Biological Diversity used to make its decisions.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I am a producer/director who has just finished editing a 28-minute documentary on the trade of pelargonium sidoides, a plant growing in South Africa and used in a medicine manufactured by a German company called Schwabe.

    We have started blogging about this and I hope you don't mind that I inserted a link to this article on our site.

    I am very interested in your views on this topic and would love to get your feedback on our documentary. We are extremely keen to organise screenings and debates to discuss biopiracy-related issues.

    Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you would like to discuss this further with us or could recommend any organisation who may be interested in our project.