Wildlife: How Do We Divide Up the World’s Biological Resources?

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As we wrote yesterday, the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya has a long agenda. That’s what happens when you convene a global meeting to save wildlife on the planet Earth. But beyond the dire warnings about disappearing animals and emptying seas—and the grand, if fuzzy promises governments will make—there’s some realpolitik going on behind the scenes. One of the biggest questions facing the  CBD is what to do about the troubled international trade in genetic and biological resources. If it can be streamlined and controlled, poor but biodiverse countries could make billions off their biological capital, while rich nations could be assured of a steady supply of the genetic and biological ingredients that go into making new drugs and other products. But if an agreement can’t be reached, that trade could be disrupted or driven underground, and biological capitalism could turn into biopiracy, or shut down altogether.

By one estimate, biological resources underpin some 40% of the world’s economy, either directly or indirectly. That can range from food products, to the live animal trade, to logging. Trade gets tricky when we’re dealing with certain plants or animals that can only be found in a few countries, but which can be used to make products—especially medicine—that can be marketed across the world. One example is Chinese star anise, a spice that is a vital ingredient in the antiflu medication Tamiflu—which suddenly became very important during the H1N1/A flu pandemic last year.

There has long been tension between biodiverse developing nations, which tend to have more undiscovered biological resources, and companies from developed nations that want to make use of those plants. At its worst, companies have been able to patent biological resources from developing nations and turn them into finished products—something critics not inaccurately call biopiracy. In recent years developing nations like Brazil have fought back, putting up barriers to outsiders looking for useful new plants and other genetic resources—a process known as bioprospecting. But those limits have unintended consequences, hampering non-commercial scientific research and potentially slowing the development of valuable new medicines.

The hope at Nagoya is that countries will be able to come together to create a legally binding protocol that will formalizes access and benefit-sharing (ABS) of biological resources, building a deal that will allow companies to make the most of untapped genetic resources while fairly compensating developing nations. Such a deal could potentially provide billions for developing but biodiverse nations, opening up a new stream of funding to protect wildlife and habitat. But it won’t be easy—and it could hold up work on other conservation goals. Brazil has already said that broader success at Nagoya will hinge first on a proper ABS protocol. Even before the meeting, 17 nations—led by Brazil, India and China—formed a Group of Like-minded Megadiverse Countries to push for protection from biopiracy, as Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said at last month’s UN General Assembly meeting:

Countries like Brazil and India are victims of biopiracy over many decades, and we have to protect our bioresources, we have to protect our traditional knowledge.

Western countries, however, have generally preferred to negotiate trade agreements on biological resources piecemeal, rather than create a global, binding treaty. (For those who follow climate change negotiations, this is not an unfamiliar position.) But in the absence of a global treaty, individual nations could pass increasingly restrictive laws, all but shutting down the pipeline for new, potentially lifesaving medicines. One would hope a compromise could be reached, but the example of the World Trade Organization talks—now mired in its ninth year of stalemate—isn’t inspiring.

Of course, while governments bicker over trade law, biodiversity—the backbone of biological and genetic resources—continues to dwindle. It would be ironic—and sad—if we lose the irreplacable plants and animals we’re arguing about before we figure out a way to fairly share them.