The issues that arose and shook the very foundation of the above acknowledged beliefs have had to be defined in World forums, and are described in brief here. Each issue plays its part in helping to understand the pros and cons of granting patents on life forms.
Biodiversity: Each region of the Earth is endowed with numerous flora and fauna. The quantum of their variety and the numbers of different plant and animal species constitutes the biodiversity of a given environment. This term can also mean habitat diversity or genetic diversity. The tropical regions are rich in biodiversity; the Polar Regions are not. A treaty for preservation of biodiversity was adopted in the Earth Summit of 1992.
Indigenous knowledge: Natives of countries with histories that date well back to pre common-era days have a treasure of wealth in the form of use of native plants and native techniques that are region-specific and came into use through intuition, chance or gradual practice.
Biodiplomacy: It is acknowledged that biotechnology initiatives have both beneficial and negative potential. An indistinctly fragile line that can become totally obscure separates the two sides. With the recognition that the value of biodiversity is non-renewable has arisen the need for national and international regulations, laws and policies that both promote innovation, as well as respect the “environment and existing biological, genetic, and cultural integrity. Negotiators must confront not only technical and economic concerns, but also sensitive ethical, social, and cultural issues. Biodiplomacy encompasses a complex set of negotiation processes that seek to regulate scientific innovation, biotechnology, and trade in natural products, while also recognizing the non-commercial values of biodiversity and the potential for innovative responses to global food and health needs based on traditional knowledge systems”. (Biodiplomacy – bringing life to international negotiations)
Biopiracy: All countries possess traditional knowledge that passes from one generation to the next through informal means, and that was never disputed, only banked and built on for future or for public good. But with the kind of fame, glory and financial power that patents offer, this realm of homely wisdom has been invaded and usurped by certain institutions. Biopiracy refers to the practice by which unscrupulous, mostly greedy external organizations like corporates, laboratories, institutes and governments exercise muscle to illegally use and exploit knowledge of biological resources of a country that originally possessed that knowledge. The term encompasses such activities as: monopolistic commercial rights on life forms (plants, animals, organs, microorganisms, genes), commercialization of traditional knowledge and patenting of biological resources. Biopiracy is the ‘unapproved and uncompensated use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge’
Biosafety: There are always risks in the usage of newly produced biotechnology products, however thorough and intense the basic research and experimentation work. The efforts taken to reduce or eliminate such risks are generally termed biosafety and obviously, these can never be complete, or enough. The Biosafety Protocol recommends a ‘precautionary approach, whereby the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to postpone action when there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage’. Such necessary biosafety systems are well defined in advanced countries that dominate the biotechnology industry; the countries of the South are just waking up to this requirement.
Plant breeder’s rights: The Intellectual Property rights in respect of plant varieties dates much earlier than the 1970-born question of life patents. There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from plant variety protection that will help in getting a better perspective on the subject of IP and life forms. Traditionally, plant variety management never came under the preview of IP rights. Seed saving and exchange were rational practices among agriculturists who placed the fulfillment of food needs well above profit-making intentions. In the US and Europe early last century, private investment in agriculture increased when government involvement reduced, and that was how the IP protection concept entered the seed industry. Plant breeder’s rights were likened to conventional patent rights; and received official international recognition in 1961 at Paris (International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, called UPOV-1961). There have been several revisions, notably in 1978 and 1991. (From ‘Intellectual Property Protection and Sustainable Development’, published by LexisNexis Butterworths, © Philippe Cullet, 2005).
Farmer’s rights: In 1983, an International Undertaking passed at a FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) conference affirmed “plant genetic resources are a heritage of humankind which should be made available without restriction to anyone”. This was meant to include not only traditional cultivars and wild species, but also laboratory-produced varieties. While this noble concept received due respect, some nations claimed sovereign right over their plant genetic resources. At the 1989 session of FAO, the role of farming communities in “maintaining sustainable agricultural practices, conserving plant genetic resources and enhancing agro-biodiversity though their innovation” was recognized as Farmer’s rights, similar to the already extant plant breeder’s rights. (From ‘Intellectual Property Protection and Sustainable Development’, published by LexisNexis Butterworths, © Philippe Cullet, 2005).
Bioprospecting: Biotechnologists looking for ever-newer resources for their research, explore the biodiversity of the remotest locations of the globe, searching for ‘extremophiles’. Such biological prospecting has enormous implications in achieving medical / agricultural / ecological advancements from harnessing organisms of the plant or animal world that have evolved to survive the most extreme climatic conditions and environs. One of the latest such activities has been the search for Antarctica’s indigenous life forms. While the advancements may mean new frontiers in agricultural produce or in the cure of diseases, over-adventuring and / or environmental misadventures by irresponsible prospectors are not impossibilities. Thankfully there is awareness about such possibilities of destructive exploitation. (Report: Accelerate Global Agreement to Oversee Exploitation of South Pole “Extremophiles”)
Benefit Sharing: Conflicts have arisen when biotechnology companies of the North monopolise the use, through patent grants, of traditionally accepted indigenous resources of the South. In their view, patents are the only means to recover and safeguard huge capital investments. This conflict has brought about the concept of Benefit Sharing - a biodiplomacy effort that awards contracts between source countries and bioprospectors, with the intention that royalties are shared between the two amicably.