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About Biopiracy



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Biopiracy is an informal term used to refer to current attempts by (usually) Western-based multinational corporations to identify, patent, and therefore effectively "own" traditional uses of plants and herbs, as well as heretofore unrealized properties of local plants, in poor and developing countries. This is usually done for medical purposes, and is known by its supporters by the somewhat less inflammatory term bioprospecting.

- How Biopiracy Works -

In theory, one cannot own a naturally occurring plant or animal species (there is greater uncertainty about genetically engineered subspecies, which have been patented). However, in the developing world, particularly in jungle and rainforest settings, there are an enormous number of under-studied life forms which hold interest to Western science. In particular, many of these hold medical interest for pharmaceutical companies. In some cases, these companies hope to test traditional medical herbs for active ingredients, which can then be isolated and sold as medicines. In other cases, the medical or other applications of a plant have yet to be realized.

In either case, what happens next is that the company in question files for a patent and effectively "owns" the application it claims to have invented. The argument that this is a form of piracy - specifically, biopiracy - occurs on two fronts. The first, with relation to traditional medicines and herbs, is that the pharmaceutical company in question has in fact invented nothing: it has simply "stolen" or hijacked a traditional plant, subjected it to a battery of lab tests, and then claimed ownership of what was in fact an ancient indigenous practice.

The second argument is similar but more characteristic of the anti-globalization movement more generally: a developing country's plants, and everything those plants can do, is that country's heritage and that country's sovereign property. Therefore, if one of those plants is found to have some sort of important medical purpose, the resulting profits ought to belong to the country where the plant originated, not to the Western corporation whose "bioprospectors" happened upon it. The Biodiversity Convention is an international law which, at least in theory, guarantees all countries - both rich and poor - the rights to the future uses of their "genetic resources." The United States, Andorra, and the Vatican are currently the only countries which have not ratified this law.

- Examples of Biopiracy -

There are quite a number of well-known cases of alleged biopiracy, stretching back throughout the post-World War II period. In the 1950s, for example, Eli Lilly was able to develop a treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma from a Madagascar plant, the rosy periwinkle. In the 1990s, the U.S. allowed a patent for the development of the Indian neem tree's anti-fungal chemical; Indian denounced this as an attempt to patent the neem tree, which had long been used for this purpose in traditional Indian society. The same decade, RiceTec of Texas even brazenly applied for - and, worse, won - a patent on basmati rice. That patent has subsequently been mostly stripped of its privileges.

Because it faced the brunt of the neem and basmati rice cases, India has been in the forefront of the global fight against biopiracy. Currently it sponsors an international database of traditional herbs and medical practices, intended as a means of fighting any future patents by providing solid proof of prior knowledge and use by traditional societies. Critics continue to argue that "biopirates" are simply patenting the means of extracting active ingredients from traditional herbs, rather than the actual traditional herbs themselves, and that in any case what they are doing saves lives.

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