Biopiracy

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= Biopiracy is a situation where indigenous knowledge of nature is exploited for commercial gain with no compensation to the indigenous people themselves. Detractors of utilization of natural knowledge such as Greenpeace claim these practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting companies which engage in biopiracy. [1]


Description

From http://www.scidev.net/dossiers/index.cfm?fuseaction=policybrief&policy=40&section=171&dossier=8:


"the word 'biopiracy' was coined by the North American advocacy group, Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) — formerly known as Rural Advancement Foundation International — to refer to the uncompensated commercial use of biological resources or associated Traditional Knowledge from developing countries, as well as the patenting by corporations of claimed inventions based on such resources or knowledge.

ETC Group and others allege that such patents are wrongly awarded. This could be due to a number of factors: the examiners may not have enough time and resources to conduct 'prior art' searches; the required standards of inventiveness being applied to patent applications may be too low; or the companies or scientific institutions applying for the patents may deliberately fail to cite the prior art upon which their inventions were based.

Groups such as ETC claim to have uncovered many cases either of patents being acquired for 'inventions' that are closely based on TK (such as the pesticidal uses of seeds from the neem tree), or of Plant Breeders' Rights (PBR) certificates — a kind of IPR system for plant varieties — being awarded for plant varieties that are virtually identical to 'folk varieties' of the same plants. ETC Group claims to have identified over 100 cases of PBR protection being sought for varieties acquired from international genebanks, many of which they allege are folk varieties that have been subjected to little, if any, additional breeding.

The bioprospecting/'biopiracy' debate has pitted corporations against a number of developing country governments and indigenous peoples, who claim that they are being exploited by such practices. It has also led to tensions between academic researchers, who have long studied biological resources for primarily scientific reasons — and maintain that ethically sound and non-exploitative bioprospecting is possible — and environmental NGOs. [2] Indeed, some of the latter take an extreme view, dismissing all bioprospecting as biopiracy by another name." (http://www.scidev.net/dossiers/index.cfm?fuseaction=policybrief&policy=40&section=171&dossier=8)


Examples

From the Wikipedia:

"The rosy periwinkle

The rosy periwinkle case dates from the 1950s. The rosy periwinkle, while native to Madagascar, had been widely introduced into other tropical countries around the world well before the discovery of vincristine. This meant that researchers could obtain local knowledge from one country and plant samples from another. The locally known medical properties of the plant were not the same as the medical properties discovered and commercially used by Eli Lilly[citation needed]. The use of the plant as a cure for diabetes was the original stimulus for research, but cures for cancer were the most important results. Different countries are reported as having acquired different beliefs about the medical properties of the plant. The Hodgkin's Lymphoma chemotherapeutic drug vinblastine is also derivable from the rosy periwinkle.


The neem tree

In 1995 the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a pharmaceutical research firm received a patent on a technique to extract an anti-fungal agent from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which grows throughout India and Nepal; Indian villagers have long understood the tree's medicinal value. Although the patent had been granted on an extraction technique, the Indian press described it as a patent on the neem tree itself; the result was widespread public outcry, which was echoed throughout the developing world. Legal action by the Indian government followed, with the patent eventually being overturned in 2005.

Importantly, the pharmaceutical company involved in the neem case argued that as traditional Indian knowledge of the properties of the neem tree had never been published in an academic journal, such knowledge did not amount to "prior art" (prior art is the term used when previously existing knowledge bars a patent). Public knowledge and public disclosure (including oral or written descriptions) is considered prior art in most countries.


The Enola Bean

The Enola bean (not a traditional medicine) is a variety of Mexican yellow bean, so called after the wife of the man who patented it in 1999. The allegedly distinguishing feature of the variety is seeds of a specific shade of yellow. The patent-holder subsequently sued a large number of importers of Mexican yellow beans with the following result: "...export sales immediately dropped over 90% among importers that had been selling these beans for years, causing economic damage to more than 22,000 farmers in northern Mexico who depended on sales of this bean." A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the farmers, and on April 14, 2005 the US-PTO ruled in favor of the farmers. An appeal was heard on 16 January 2008, and the patent was revoked in May 2008. An appeal to the court against the revocation was unsuccessful (Decided October 2009)." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biopiracy)


Key Book to Read

  1. Shiva, Vandana (1997). Biopiracy : The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. South End Press.


More Information

  1. Bioprospecting
  2. Seed Commons
  3. Ownership of Biodiversity