Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?

The hunt for genetic riches in the developing world

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This is part of a series of essays on bioprospecting and biopiracy. The other essays are: “High-Tech Piracy”; “Mapping the Territory”; “Pharmaceutical Giant Shares the Wealth”; “Transnationals With a Conscience”; and “Biodiversity Resources”.

If the 20th century was the age of industry, the 21st century is shaping up to be the age of biology. As abstract as the debate about biotechnology may seem, no one will be left untouched by this revolution.

From the genetic engineering of plants, animals, and microorganisms to the mapping and even patenting of human cell lines (self-reproducing sets of particular kinds of cells), biotechnology is big business. The manipulation of living material to create new types of medicines and agricultural products is currently worth $2 billion a year in the United States. Estimates are that biotech profits will soar to $50 billion by the year 2000. Most of the “raw material” for this booming industry comes from the world’s dwindling rainforests of the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed, many scientists believe that the cures for AIDS, cancer, and other dreaded diseases lie hidden beneath these verdant tropical canopies. The trick is to find the precious gene or cell line first, and then to patent the “invention.” Profits may be many years down the line, what with extensive government-mandated trials and testing for safety, but when pharmaceuticals or agricultural products finally do make it to market, companies often see a phenomenal return on their investment.

Supporters of this genetic gold rush refer to it as “bioprospecting”: Relatively common or inexpensive raw materials are transformed through detailed scientific work and high technology into highly refined commodities and desperately needed medicines. Detractors, on the other hand, call it “biopiracy” and see it as just another example of how the rich and developed world rips off the poor. Questions about who “owns” the developing world’s biodiversity, and who should profit from its fruits, abound. The answers are far from clear.

In the following section we present various sides of this multifaceted debate. Should transnational companies be allowed to corner the market on products developed from tropical plants, animals, and microorganisms? Should the Human Genome Diversity Project be allowed to sample the blood, hair, and saliva of indigenous peoples—essentially mining their genetic makeup for medicines? Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment offers an emphatic no. Henry Greely, who chairs an ethics subcommittee associated with the Human Genome Diversity Project, says yes with equal vigor. Others describe what groups around the world are doing to fight back against genetic engineering and biopiracy, while several contributors outline the efforts of some transnational companies to do right by their “hosts” in the developing world.