Biodiversity Commercialization

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The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which entered into force on December 29, 1993, established an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and set up a process for the further development of legal, policy, and scientific activities related to biodiversity. The treaty has been highly controversial, however, provoking strong differences in perspectives, especially between those claiming to speak for indigenous peoples and for commercializing enterprises.

Historical Background

Concerns about the global loss of biodiversity that emerged in the late 1970s took their initial legal form in the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources voluntarily adopted by members of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This 1983 agreement, based on a proclaimed "universally accepted principle that plant genetic resources are a heritage of mankind and consequently should be available without restriction," aimed to "ensure that plant genetic resources of economic and/or social interest ... will be explored, preserved, evaluated and made available for plant breeding and scientific purposes."

Discussion of the costs and responsibilities for implementing such an agreement stimulated the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1987 to establish an Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Biological Diversity to harmonize existing related conventions. Negotiations that produced the CBD began in 1990 among representatives from governments, corporations, and various interest groups including universities, research institutes, botanic parks and gardens, and community-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The CBD was opened for signature at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, June 1992. According to the CBD itself, its objectives are "the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies, and by appropriate funding" (Article 1).

The forty-two articles of the CBD not only create substantive provisions for conservation, commercial development, scientific research, and education regarding biological diversity (articles 6–20), but also outline mechanisms for further development of these provisions through a Conference of Parties (article 23), Secretariat (article 24), and a Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (article 25). One of the first actions of the Conference of Parties (COP) was to add a Protocol on Biosafety, negotiation on which began at a COP meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1999, and continued in Montreal, Canada, in 2000, when agreement was reached. Although negotiations were concluded in Montreal, the results are still known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which implements CBD article 19 with procedures for the "safe transfer, handling and use of any living modified organism resulting from biotechnology that may have adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity."

Ethical Debates

As Kerry ten Kate and Sarah A. Laird (2001) have summarized them, there are two basic responses to the CBD and its issues. On the one side are those representing private commercializing enterprises (most prominently transnational agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations); on the other are those of indigenous or local interests from the source countries in the developing world.

BIOPROSPECTING. From the point of view of private corporations, they are involved in bioprospecting for what might be thought of as "green petroleum" in a process that will bring wealth to gene-rich but financially poor countries. Corporations argue that just as in the cases of other resources such as minerals, the commercialization of biological resources requires major capital investments in research and development over long periods of time with no guarantee of rewards. The only way a business enterprise can justify such investments is through an ability to patent those processes and products of its work. Moreover, the ultimate rewards will be in the long-term best interests not only of the corporations and their shareholders but of the source countries as well.

Demands by source countries for more up-front payments for raw biological resources access and for more explicit informed consent processes will ultimately destroy the bioprospecting market. Biological research and development work is in competition with genetic engineering of pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics, and new forms of synthetic and combinatorial chemistry including molecular biology and nanotechnology. Only if bioprospecting can remain competitive with such alternatives will it be pursued. Requiring that local populations be given extensive education about the biological resources to which they sell the rights, along with full disclosure of potential research and development trajectories, both negative and positive, only adds another level of costs that can easily drive corporations away from the kinds of investment that are ultimately beneficial to source countries.

BIOPIRACY. From the point of view of critics representing source countries, however, bioprospecting is better described as biopiracy. This term was coined in 1993 by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an NGO subsequently renamed the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), and then widely disseminated when deployed as the title of Vandana Shiva's Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (1997). The word is part of the rhetorical critique of globalization or the anti-globalization movement, an equally controversial name for political and economic action that representatives themselves often prefer to describe as an alternate globalization (alter-globalization) or fair-trade (as opposed to free trade) movement.

According to the ETC Group, biopiracy involves the unjust appropriation of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources by individuals or institutions seeking control (usually patents or breeders' rights) over them, leading to the loss of control of their own resources by traditional peoples. In this sense, biodiversity commercialization is simply a new form of colonialization, in which developed countries through global corporations scour the world, extract genetic material, then patent these finds as their "discoveries." Colonization is now focused on life itself—plants, micro-organisms, animals, and even human organs, cells, and genes. From this perspective, the CBD may be used as a means to regulate access to biological resources in ways that lead to sharing with the communities the results of research and development and the benefits arising from the commercial utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way. It may also function to protect diversity not only in biology but also in culture, not only facilitating advancements of knowledge in modern science but preserving the knowledge present in indigenous science.


SEE ALSO Agricultural Ethics;Biodiversity;Globalism and Globalization.


Kate, Kerry Ten. (1995). Biopiracy or Green Petroleum? Expectations and Best Practices in Bioprospecting. London: Overseas Development Administration.

Kate, Kerry Ten, and Sarah A. Laird. (1999). The Commercial Use of Biodiversity: Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing. London: Earthscan.

Khor, Martin. (2002). Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development: Resolving the Difficult Issues. London: Zed Books.

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. (2001). Handbook of the Convention on Biological Diversity. London: Earthscan.

Shiva, Vandana. (1997). Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston: South End Press.