A new international regime hopes to help reverse the trend of biodiversity loss as well as spur economic growth and research for both industrial and developing nations.
High in the Cederberg Mountains of South Africa grows a bristly shrub that embodies the tug-of-war taking place between industrialized and developing nations over the value of genetic resources—the genes found in plant, animal or microbial cells used for research as well as in commercial products, such as enhanced seeds and naturally derived cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
The leaves of rooibos, translated from Afrikaans as “red bush,” are sipped in ruby-hued teas around the world but were previously sought by early settlers for their capacity to heal skin and reduce inflammation. Now, Nestec, SA, a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Nestlé, is trying to patent rooibos’s healing properties for use in beauty products, a process some call a misuse of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. Others consider it an advancement of science and an economic boon, given the industry’s estimated value of $500 billion to $800 billion, as of 1999.
A truce in the worldwide tussle over the use and patenting of genetic resources is scheduled for the middle of October when the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—an international legally binding treaty on upholding the world’s ecological sustainability—are set to gather in Nagoya, Japan, in hopes of finalizing a protocol on “access and benefit–sharing [ABS].” The aim is to ensure that the benefits resulting from researching animals, plants and microorganisms, such as the invention of new medicines or enhanced genes to improve crop varieties, are “fairly and equitably shared” among the providers and users. Whereas most people agree on the need for such a legally binding agreement, the fine print is still being tweaked between industrialized and developing countries. Even if the protocol is adopted in Nagoya, the only way for it to be truly effective is for it to have a strong compliance component.
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