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.
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.