13 July 2009

prospecting biopiracy

Biodiversity prospecting is the exploration of wild plants and animals for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources. Through the use of new biotechnology, genes from any plant or animal can be transferred to another. Plant and animal breeders, use genes found in wild species and genetically engineered organisms are now being used for new industrial applications such as mining, waste-water treatment and carbon-dioxide scrubbing. The different biochemicals produced by species are of considerable value in the pharmaceutical and pesticide industries. The numbers of biodiversity prospecting ventures are growing rapidly and the flurry of interest and enthusiasm in biodiversity prospecting is taking place in a policy vacuum.

India is rich in biological diversity and associated traditional and contemporary knowledge systems relating thereto. Conservative estimates have put the monetary value of medicinal plants related trade globally at over 68 billion (USD) with an expected growth to 5 trillion by the year 2050. According to the World Health Organization, traditional largely medicinal plants based systems continue to provide primary health care to over 80% of the world’s population. The World Bank in a study on world development has indicated that the gap between the haves and the have-nots may increase due to ownership of knowledge through Intellectual property Rights (IPRs). Patenting trends across the world shows that there is a spurt in R&D activity by other countries to exploit these vast traditional bio-resources for commercial gain leading to innovative product, processes and applications.

A sizable number of drugs are developed from plants. The majority of these involve the isolation of the active ingredient from the particular medicinal plant and its subsequent modification. A semi-synthetic analogue of such a compound could typically be a useful pharmaceutical product. Most of such drugs have been discovered with the aid of ethno- botanical knowledge of the traditional uses of the plant. The pharmaceutical company that makes such a drug also applies for some form of intellectual property protection, the most favored being the patent. If granted, the patent gives the company the right to prevent anyone else from manufacturing or selling the product. The company gets, in effect, a commercial monopoly. In addition, the source of the ethno-botanical knowledge is generally not mentioned. Thus both the credit for the product and the financial reward generally go to the company. The country from which the knowledge is obtained is simply treated as a source of raw material, whether of knowledge or of a biological resource.

The analysis of patenting activity in clove for example shows that there are about 594 patents relating to clove by countries such as USA, China and Japan with the overall thrust to make use of the properties of cloves or its extracts as ingredients in flavoring food and feed products, in medicine, dentifrice’s, surfactants and as an essence in cosmetics. However the resource rich countries such as India have not made any impact in this direction though there are still some gaps where no patents have been filed for example the use of clove in diabetes or tuberculosis and as a mulluscicidal or a nematidicidal. In contrast China has protected most of its traditional knowledge by granting patents.

Biotechnology and new patent laws have allowed companies to capitalize on even the smallest life forms. The E Merck pharmaceutical company has patented microbial samples from nine countries. The 'biopirates' are also on the lookout for profitable, patentable plants. In one remarkable example, several North American companies, including WR Grace, have been granted more than 30 US patents on the neem tree of India-- and not only on the tree, but also on the indigenous knowledge about its many uses.

In another act of biopiracy, two drugs derived from the rosy periwinkle -vincristine and vinblastine-earn $100 million annually for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. The plant is indigenous to the rainforest of Madagascar, but the country has received nothing in return – these are obvious examples where biopiracy does not bring royalties to developing nations but instead increase profits to multi-national drug companies who by patenting TK, not only monopolize the drug market but are also in a position to sue indigenous people for the use of their own traditional medicines!

India, consists of plenty of flora and fauna and 65 crore-acres of land which gets plenty of sunshine so biomass energy is generated in copious amounts. We have massive genetic resources. There are several battles we have won for example, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) against registering of turmeric patent in USA and the efforts CSIR scientists had to take against the US patent on Basmati rice.

Third world nations should form a strong base from which they can protect their national interests and biological resources. There are over 200 medicinal plants from our country which multinationals are trying to patent. India, with such a wide scientific base and cultural background should take the lead to stop biopiracy by multinational companies.

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