Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

How Should the Benefits of Bioprospecting Be Shared?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

How Should the Benefits of Bioprospecting Be Shared?

Article excerpt

Bioprospecting--the search for valuable chemical products in natural biological resources--is an important source of novel chemical and biological products with potential uses in medicine, agriculture, and other industries. (1) But a great deal of the world's "biodiversity" is found in developing countries, which often lack the research capacity to make use of it. Bioprospecting in such environments generally requires outside bioprospectors and sponsors from the developed world. This has led to concern that bioprospectors will take what is valuable without compensating the community from which the samples come or whose knowledge led to the discovery. Critics label such practices "biopiracy."

Consider the famous Hoodia case. (2) For millennia, the San people of southern Africa have used native plants of the Hoodia genus as appetite suppressants. Their practice was documented by colonial botanists, and Hoodia's properties were then investigated in the late twentieth century by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which attempted to isolate the active ingredients. In 1995, following nine years of development, CSIR applied for a patent on the chemical components of the plant that suppressed appetite. Three years later, they signed a licensing agreement with a private company named Phytopharm that developed a program with Pfizer for commercialization of Hoodia products for the lucrative Western weight loss market. All this research and development proceeded without the knowledge of the San. Only in 2001, following extensive press exposure, did CSIR enter into negotiations with San representatives about whether and how the San ought to benefit from Hoodias commercialization.

Clearly, there was something wrong with the behavior of CSIR in this case. Many people think that the San should have been consulted about the use of their traditional knowledge and should have the opportunity to benefit from Hoodia's development. Indeed, the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which 191 countries are signatories, requires the "fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources." (3) However, the ethical justifications for such sharing have not been established, beyond appeals to intuitions about justice and exploitation. Consequently, what share of benefits is owed--and to whom--is also uncertain.

Current good practice for bioprospecting consistent with the Convention on Biological Diversity is found in the benefit-sharing arrangements of the U.S.-sponsored International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups, or ICBGs. (4) These arrangements specify, first, that benefit-sharing agreements should be negotiated with the local community and require the prior informed consent of its members, and second, that benefits should be shared in return for access to genetic resources and for the use of the community's "traditional knowledge" about the pharmacological properties of local flora and fauna under study. (5) From the perspective of Western accounts of property, both these principles appear strange. The first principle seems strange because it is natural to think that community members deserve a share of benefits in virtue of their ownership of the organisms containing the genetic resources, but ownership normally implies that people may do as they wish with their possessions (within moral limits). In this case, for example, individuals could sell plant products. Why, in the case of bioprospecting, are individuals' rights abrogated? Compensation for the use of traditional knowledge also seems strange. Compensation is required even when the originators of the knowledge are not alive and the knowledge is common within the community. But intellectual property rights over the knowledge then seem unwarranted. No one who has the knowledge worked to acquire it, so there is no compensatory basis for sharing benefits with them. Moreover, the knowledge is already public, so there is no need to encourage people to reveal it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.