Biopiracy, Bioprospecting, and the Genetic Revolution

This discussion topic submitted by Steven A. Beckley ( at 8:51 pm on 5/17/00. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Steven A. Beckley
May 15, 2000
Geology 499

Biopiracy, Bioprospecting, and the Genetic Revolution

The recent advances in genetic engineering have brought about new ethical considerations. Large first world corporations have been able to literally patent genes from indigenous plants, animals, and even people without consent. Companies and universities in the first world have been able to conduct research on indigenous cultures, use the knowledge that took centuries to acquire, and then patent the key components involved in plants success. Current global organizations and treaties seem to favor, or at least allow this plundering of nature. One country that has so far been able to minimize the loss of money is Costa Rica. A look is taken at the way tropical plants, and other genes are taken from the tropics and used to make money for first world corporations. Since this topic also includes the use of genetically modified foods and seeds, this area will be touched upon.

The debate in that has been going on between first and third world countries stems from what are know as intellectual property rights (IRP). IRPs are known entities and can be patented according to U.S. patent law and other patenting agencies in the first world. IRPs were originally were meant to apply to technologies developed by companies, usually in the first world (Kerr, Hobbs, & Yampoin 1999). This meant that an idea could be patented and if unlawful use was in a country was found then the World Trade Organization (WTO) could assess a pre-agreed penalty. This form of piracy usually took the form of developing countries pirating technologies from large companies and then being assessed a penalty, usually equal in value to what had been pirated (Kerr et al. 1999). Thus, first world countries pushed for Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPs) to be governed by the World Trade Organization (Kerr et al. 1999).

Since the enactment of this stipulation in world trade many developing countries began to argue that many large first world pharmaceutical and agribiotechnology companies were in fact violating this law (Kerr et al. 1999). In fact, soon after TRIPs had been negotiated many Southern hemisphere countries wanted to renegotiate the contract in Seattle in late 1999 (Kingsnorth 1999). The U.S. and its corporations did not want to renegotiate because the U.S. and other industrialized countries were able to negotiate a contract which allowed "a company to patent ëdiscoveriesí (including plants and even human cell-lines)" (Kingsnorth 1999). Two immediate problems exist with this regulation. Firstly, it is heavily debatable whether is ethical or not to patent a living organism or any components within it. Secondly, developing countries need a "larger investment in their own indigenous scientific and institutional capacity, so they can shape this powerful new technology to suit their own distinctive local needs and circumstances (Paarlberg 2000). Essentially, the early negotiation of TRIPs has given the developed countries a head start on developing countries genetic data.

The argument that the developing countries bring up is valid. The following are two different circumstances that have arisen in different parts of the world. The first seems to be the norm and will actually take into account several of the more severe abuses of indigenous knowledge. One such is incidence is the extraction of a pesticide from the neem tree (Khor 1996). In a process that the W.R. Grace company calls novel, they were able to get a U.S. patent on a process that had essentially been used by farmers in India for years (Khor 1996). Another example involves basmati and jasmine rice, to variations grown in Thailand and India. Two biotech companies have made IPR claims on genetic variations of the rice, Rice Tec Inc. calling theirs "íJasmati,í" a trademark name that only that rice can be sold under (Kerr et al. 1999). The Thai government is upset because the name is misleading to the consumer, and a patent was given for what they feel were minor genetic variations. (Kerr et al. 1999). Many other examples exist such as the as yet unsuccessful patent of the Kava plant by U.S. and German pharmaceutical companies, California barley was saved by a gene taken from Ethiopia, and sugar-cane in the U.S. was saved by a disease resistant gene from a wild-type variety in Asia (New Internationalist 1997). All of which were done with no compensation to the country from which the genes were taken.

The second circumstance that has arisen is the case of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio). INBio, which consumed the previous agency that collected research in Costa Rica, collaborates with the national museums, universities, several government agencies, and the Missouri Botanical Gardens to identify new taxa in Costa Rica (www.inbio 2000). The ambition of the agency is identify all of the nationís species with the help of institutions such as the Natural History Museum (U.K.), the Smithsonian, and the Department of Agriculture (www.inbio 2000).

The unique idea behind INBio is that it entered into an agreement with Merck & Co. pharmaceuticals in 1991 (Reid 1994). Merck & Co. allotted INBio $1.14 million dollars for sampling and screening of species, royalties on commercial products, technical assistance and training to develop drug research in Costa Rica (Reid 1994). Even more amazing is that a portion of the up front money and half of the royalties go toward the preservation of national parks in Costa Rica (Reid 1994). This means that the release of twenty or so drugs that Costa Rica would earn more money than coffee and bananas together (www.wri 2000).

Reid cites several reasons for the success of the Merck-INBio deal. Factors that play a role in its success include "high percentage of conserved wild land, highly educated citizenry, relatively small indigenous population, small size, and considerable scientific capability" (Reid 1997). Another factor that should be included in this list is the pharmaceutical or agribiotechnology company. One company that has committed itself to the ideals set forth by INBio is Shaman, a San Francisco based company (King and Carlson 1996).

In addition to all of these factors there are several other reasons why genetic engineering may need a slightly longer time to mature. First of all there are several instances of the transgenic plant not being any better than normal plants. One example is the NuCOTN produced by Monsanto (Steinbrecher 1997). In one year in the southern U.S. a dry spell hit that prevented the G.M. cotton from producing enough Bt toxin to fend of insects (Steinbrecher 1997). This provided an opportune time for insects to gain resistance to the Bt toxin and also caused farmers to spend extra to use more fertilizer and pesticides to make the seeds viable (Steinbrecher 1997).

Secondly, in the recombinant gene technique most genes are placed with markers, usually an antibiotic. From evolution we all know that nature when left alone will ultimately evolve species resistant to the antibiotics. Two companies, Novarits and Avebe, placed frequently used antibiotics into maize and potatoes, respectively(Jones 1999). There is some concern that the resistance could be conferred to bacteria found in the stomachs of animals that ingest these products leading to antibiotic resistance (Jones 1999). As mentioned before, insects could begin to show resistance to the insecticide gene Bt that has been placed in many of Monsantoís, Calgenes, and othersí seed products (Stenbrecher 1997).

Finally, so far none of the products has been produced without the need for additional fertilizer increasing the cost to the farmer who already pays a premium for the seeds. Another problem seems to also be that these genetically modified plants may inter mix with outside plants instilling with them the same herbicide resistance that was transferred into the crop causing our herbicides to become less successful. These are a few of the main points outside the realm of this paper that need to be resolved before genetically modified products are used throughout the world.

There seems to several problems with ensuing genetic revolution. Some areas are inherently unfair to developing countries because they can not start on equal footing with developed countries and their corporations. Paarlberg explains that if G.M. foods must be labeled that first world farmers could front the money to get the final return, but poorer third world farmers would have no way to pay for labeling and would therefore not be able to sell G.M. foods to the international market (2000). There is also the problem of setting up the infrastructure for monitoring the new businesses, a somewhat more manageable task for developed nations. Another problem is that indigenous peoples often reject the ideas and notions of the developed world, and thus forcing them to patent a plant that is part of communal heritage is "fundamentally flawed" (Te Pareake). All these problems serve to confound the blurred area of bioprospecting and related topics. More research is needed on the side effects of G.M. plants and animals before wholesale production is approved. There also needs to be a universal agreement on what can and can not be patented. Finally, corporations and third world countries need to look at the INBio example of integration and find ways that developed industry can work within the model to preserve biodiversity while furthering the genetic revolution.

Jones, L. (1999). Science, medicine, and the future: Genetically modified foods. British Medical Journal, 318. 581-584.

Kerr, W. A., Hobbs, J.E., Yampoin, R. (1999). Intellectual property protection,
biotechnology and developing countries: Will the TRIPS be effective? AgBioForum, 2. 203-211.

Khor, M. (1996). Third World: The worldwide fight against biopiracy. Race & Class,26. 73-77.

King, S. R., and Carlson, T.J. (1996). Transnationals with a conscience: Some drug companies are trying to do the right thing. Intercencia

Kingsnorth, P. (1999). U.S. fights rearguard action to protect ëbiopiracyí. Ecologist, 29. 368.

Paarlberg, R. (2000). Genetically modified crops in developing countries: Promise or peril? Environment, 42. 19-27.

Reid, W.V., (1994). Pharmaceutical giant shares the wealth: Merck funds R&D in Costa Rica. Issues in Science and Technology.

van der Gaag, N., Steinbrecher, R., Te Pareake, A., (1997). Genes. New Internationalist August. 7-30.

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