For the past three years, botanist Vicki Funk of the Smithsonian Institution has been trying, unsuccessfully, to transfer select leaf specimens from Brazil to the U.S. National Herbarium for identification. Comparing closely related plants “is the bread and butter of systematics,” she explains. “We need stuff from other places.” But as biodiversity becomes a valuable commodity, developing countries have complicated efforts to collect and analyze biological samples, Funk says: “It doesn’t matter if you’re an academic, not a drug company. You’re treated the same.”
In 1992 the twin goals of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by more than 150 countries, were to preserve biodiversity and to ensure tropical nations were compensated for any “genetic resources” leading to drug discoveries for developed nations. But even as those goals were reaffirmed at a conference held this past spring in Bonn, Germany, scientists continue to criticize policies stemming from the convention. The claim is that the international agreement, which gave countries ownership of plants and animals inside their borders, is hindering tropical research and conservation, not facilitating them.
“The biodiversity convention made the argument that plants and other microorganisms were sovereign entities that needed to be treated with commercial transaction approval,” remarks Josh Rosenthal, a deputy director at the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health. As a result, “the ethos of global scientific collaboration has changed,” and the conditions for research have become more challenging.
Western scientists are not alone in their analysis. The January 2008 Current Science, a journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, included an article decrying the “shackles” Indian biodiversity law imposes on native scientists—such as prohibiting them from placing specimens in international repositories. “We need to highlight the importance of sharing biological resources among nations,” says co-author K. Divakaran Prathapan, an entomologist at the University of Kerala. The article was entitled “Death Sentence on Taxonomy.”
Of course, a history of abuses means poorer countries have every reason to question scientific work conducted on behalf of industrial countries. In 1995, for example, the U.S. granted a patent for turmeric to two doctors at the University of Mississippi—even though the anti-inflammatory properties of the herb had been documented as part of the Indian Ayurvedic tradition for centuries. “It was the most ridiculous patent I’ve ever seen,” exclaims David Gang, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Arizona.
After protests erupted in India, the patent was revoked. But so were opportunities for research—and the public benefits that go along with it. Gang says he would like to see a global consortium of labs to sequence the genome for turmeric—modeled after the successful International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, which was completed in 2004. “But there is no possibility of collaboration with anyone in India,” he laments.
Designed to prevent exploitation, proprietary botany laws block opportunities for developing countries to form their own scientific infrastructure, argues Art Edison of the University of Florida, who is forming a project to analyze soil activity in a Peruvian reserve. “The problem is, people are so focused on the remote possibility of a major drug discovery that they don’t deal with the practical benefits of attracting U.S. research dollars, such as helping train [native] students and set up labs,” he says. These jobs in turn help supplant logging and other destructive practices.
Peru and its neighbors have some of the strictest rules in the world against collecting and transferring biological material. “When I first entered into the project, I was focused on the science,” Edison recalls. “The great fear of ‘biopiracy’ was a complete eye-opener.”