Biodiversity prospecting

Searching for plants with bioactive properties
With genetic resources no longer the "common heritage" of humankind, increasing attention has been paid to their commercialisation. Biodiversity prospecting refers to the search for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources from nature. These could be novel chemicals or genes used to develop new drugs, improve crop yields, or accord pest resistance to plants. Many indigenous species also hold promise for exploitation and commercialisation through domestication (e.g. ornamentals and forages). Resources for biodiversity prospering may originate from plants, marine organisms, insects and other vertebrates, invertebrates, fungi or bacteria.

Bio-prospecting has been practised for many years in different forms but in more recent times, in particular with the development of the [Convention on Biological Diversity] (CBD), the issue of sharing of benefits arising from bio-prospecting, has attained significance. The CBD, in the context of its objectives of conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits arising from use of such resources, places special emphasis on the fact that there has to be fair and equitable sharing of benefits with local and indigenous communities. However, certain critical issues remain unresolved, particularly in relation to how to go about legalizing and formalizing.

Considerable controversy surrounds biodiversity prospecting. Some regard it as a panacea for biologically rich, but financially poor countries, and as an incentive for biodiversity conservation. Others consider it with a good deal of suspicion, and see the CBD's provisions to regulate access as an attempt to legitimize continued multinational corporation control of developing country's biological resources. What is becoming increasingly evident is that biodiversity prospering is not a "pot of gold" for countries providing genetic resources. Although the combined world market exceeds 300 billion dollars annually, commercial ventures are risky and costly, and the likelihood of discovering a valuable compound is low. However, with a well considered strategy, biodiversity prospecting can reap benefits for countries rich in genetic diversity, especially with regard to enhancing research capacity an developing technology.

Indigenous knowledge of plants and their patterns of use assist botanists to identify species of commercial potential. Sampling guided by traditional knowledge substantially increases the efficiency of screening plants for medicinal treatments.

In September 1991, the Institiuto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio), a Costa Rican private non-profit organization and the US pharmaceutical firm Merck & Company entered into an agreement on 'biodiversity prospecting' - the exploration of biodiversity of commercially valuable genetic resources. Under the terms of the agreement, Merck provided over US$1 million for a limited number of extracts from accessions gathered by Costa Rican ecochemists. The partners have agreed on a royalty-sharing system if any of the material is commercialized.

Bioprospecting, which began in rainforests, is also beginning to move offshore into coral reefs, places that may be even more diverse than the Amazon - and just as threatened.

South Africa is a favoured destination for "biodiversity prospecting" companies seeking potential new crops and novel biochemical molecules with medicinal, agricultural, horticultural, environmental, or other economic potential. This is largely because of the country's high levels of endemism and diversity, comprehensive knowledge base of the fauna and flora, considerable scientific capacity, well-developed infrastructure, and well-managed protected areas and living collections, which enables the reliable sourcing of materials. Of concern is the fact that present activities concerning the export and use of South Africa's biodiversity are virtually uncontrolled, and that commercial exploitation of the country's genetic resources is taking place in a policy and legal vacuum.

1. Biodiversity in both developing and developed countries has been accessed for a long time by outside researchers and corporate prospectors as well as by local communities. Such activities are carried out for various purposes. Sometimes plants, animals and habitats are merely described, other times the goal is to extract for profit. These activities have helped to advance knowledge and create awareness of how precious biodiversity is. These activities have also generated many products that contribute to the health and well-being of global consumers, but may not necessarily provide benefits to their original stewards.
Type Classification:
D: Detailed strategies