Guidelines for researchers, companies, governments and universities engaged in bioprospecting are to be drawn up within two years, representatives of nearly 200 nations have agreed.
Researchers hope the guidelines will help to calm global discord over the sharing of financial benefits from natural products, such as potential drug targets — particularly those found in poor nations that are rich in biodiversity.
After marathon negotiations at the Seventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, representatives agreed on 20 February for guidelines to be prepared in time for approval at the next conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2006.
The guidelines are set to incorporate the idea of an internationally recognized certificate of origin, as a kind of passport for any scientific discovery. This will allow the source country and developer to follow the trail from its place of origin to its commercial exploitation.
Some researchers have expressed concerns about the extra regulations. “It is a bitter pill to swallow. But the moral argument is uncontestable,” says plant taxonomist Matthew Jebb, acting director of the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland, who led the European Union's delegation in some of the talks. “We are reaping the legacy of more than 100 years of European domination.”
The meeting rejected proposals from some poor countries for an extra treaty on access and benefit-sharing, as well as calls from rich nations for no extra rules.
Carlos Fernandez Ugalde, an environmental economist at Mexico's National Institute of Ecology and part of the Mexican delegation, says the outcome was satisfactory, but that it would be “a real challenge” to develop guidelines that would address the rights of indigenous people to traditional knowledge.
Delegates from Africa, Latin America and Asia complained about exploitation of genetic resources and failure to share the benefits. But drug companies say the CBD makes bioprospecting more trouble than it is worth in many countries.
The poorer countries also favour incorporating a discovery's place of origin into patent applications when the guidelines are implemented. But this is fiercely opposed by patent offices in rich countries such as the United States.
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