A major snag of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)1 is a shift in focus from the ecological and scientific value of biodiversity to its commercial value. Articles 3 and 15 of the CBD recognise the sovereign rights of nation states over their biological resources and their authority to determine access to genetic resources through national legislation. Several countries have developed legal regimes and implementing mechanisms to regulate access to genetic resources (Grajal 1999). This undermines global food security that is critically dependent on transnational sharing and distribution of genetic resources among human societies. National legislation like India's Biological Diversity Act 20022 (Prathapan et al 2006; 2008; Prathapan and Rajan 2009) and the Philippine Executive Order No 2473 shut down national boundaries against free access and sharing of genetic resources. Such parochial restrictive measures are gradually becoming ubiquitous all over the world.
Common Heritage Strategy
No country ever possessed all the genetic
resources essential for its existence. Every
country in the world uses exotic genetic
material to enhance the productivity of its
crops and livestock as the genetic limits of
the native stock can be overcome only by
incorporating genes from such material.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation's
(FAO) 22nd conference adopted a resolution
(Resolution 8/83)4 that plant genetic
resources are a heritage of mankind to be
preserved, and to be freely available for
use, for the benefit of present and future
generations. Developing countries en
masse pushed through and adopted
the resolution, while Canada, France, Germany,
Japan, the United Kingdom and the United
States officially reserved their position
with respect to the FAO undertaking as it
explicitly specifies that the term "plant
genetic resources" also includes newly
developed varieties and special genetic
stocks. The developing countries' efforts
to keep all types of breeding material
within the public domain were at variance
with the demand of the developed countries
to provide and respect intellectual
property protection. In 1989, developed
countries succeeded in establishing Plant
Breeders' Rights as provided under the International
Union for the Protection of
New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). This FAO
resolution,5 though it recognises farmers'
rights, set the stage for the showdown
between the technologically-advanced
North and the biodiversity-rich South over
genetic resources in the United Nations
Convention on Biological Diversity.
In lieu of their demand to keep all breeding material
in the public domain, the developed
countries collectively bargained and succeeded
in establishing national sovereign
rights over genetic resources that was
historically treated as a common heritage
of mankind. The CBD in its current form,
yet to be adopted by the US, is an outcome
of this conflict over genetic resources.
National Sovereign Rights
The biodiversity-rich developing nations
had high expectations for CBD under the
premise that biological resources, being
the raw material for the biotechnology,
seeds and pharmaceutical industries, are
the key to potential economic success in
the future. The high tide of publicity and
hope in the popular and scientific media
portrayed biodiversity as the most commercially
important natural resource like
oil or gold. The politicians and policymakers
in the developing world were carried
away by the waves of speculation,
propaganda and lobbying by activists
and NGOs, rather than empirical evidence.
The South abandoned the common heritage
strategy adopted in the FAO and successfully
demanded national sovereign rights over genetic resources in the CBD
negotiations. They also pushed for and
succeeded in including equitable sharing
of genetic resources in the CBD. The historic
shift in position of the South that
led to the loss of biodiversity from the
common heritage of humanity was
chronicled by Kloppenburg and Kleinman
(1987) and Rosendal (2003, 2006).
The demand of the developing countries
in CBD in 1992 for sovereign rights
over genetic resources and equitable sharing
of commercial benefits was based on
little scientific input. It has been pointed
out that the scientific board of the CBD is
dominated by politicians and professional
negotiators hindering effective action on
the basis of scientific evidence (Laikre et
al 2008). As the developing countries are
the most populated with a gap between
demand and production of food, they
should ideally have argued for open access
and free exchange of genetic resources
in Rio de Janeiro. But the thrust on
benefit-sharing led them to overlook the
precarious state of food security. The year
2008 witnessed the lowest foodgrain
stocks in the last three decades and the
world consumed more food than it
produced.6 Crop pandemics like the Ug99
strain of wheat rust and increase in food
prices leading to riots in some parts of
Asia and Africa raise the spectre of an
impending food crisis (Almeida 2009;
Walt 2008) that can be averted only by
pooling the entire resources of the global plant genetic estate.
Wise management of land, water and
biodiversity is the key to achieve sustainable
food security. Among these three pillars
of food security, land and water are
limited and the least amenable for augmentation.
But the biodiversity component,
being truly renewable, offers unlimited
opportunities to enrich the food
production as its use in a given system
does not affect its availability elsewhere.
Our challenge of feeding the ever-increasing
population in the midst of the climate
chaos can only be addressed by drawing
heavily from the global plant genetic
estate. Nationalisation of genetic resources
to counter corporate patenting has its
roots in sheer ignorance of the world's
interdependence on genetic resources and
the evolutionary history of crop plants.
Cultivated plants have originated in
different regions of the globe. The nations
of the world are locked in a complex
network of plant genetic interdependence.
This bondage is growing evermore stronger,
especially in the wake of climate change
and unprecedented loss of agrobiodiversity.
No region can afford to isolate
itself, or to be isolated, from access to plant germplasm
in other regions of diversity,
in spite of the variation in regional relationships.
The general global rule is extreme
dependence on imported genetic materials
(Kloppenberg and Kleinman 1987).
It is high time the developing nations realise
that a system of royalties for use of genetic
resources through multinational
arrangements would only heighten the mistrust
and lead to chaos. Benefit-sharing,
both as an incentive for conservation
and royalties for access to traditional
knowledge, is turning out to be unrealistic
(ten Kate and Laird 2000; Laird and Wynberg 2005; Wynberg et al 2009).
Despite being associated with geopolitical
entities historically, genetic resources
should be treated as a common heritage in
the best interest of humanity (Rajan and
Prathapan 2009). The International Treaty
on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and
Agriculture,7 adopted after seven years of
negotiations at the FAO, marks a step
forward in this direction. Many of the core
issues remain unresolved, yet the treaty
facilitates access and sharing of germplasm
of important food and fodder crops
and underscores the societal need to leave
biological resources in the public domain.
The historic treatment of biological
resources as a common heritage has enormously
benefited human societies across
the globe. As a result of germplasm
exchanges through the network of the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research (CGIAR), countries have
gained much more than their individual
contribution through access to a wide
variety of invaluable material from all
over the world.8 As human biology is in no
way determined by the political boundaries
of nation states, tags of nationality
cannot be attached to plants or animals
or the genetic diversity that man has
been conserving over generations. They
are bound to be distributed across political
boundaries just as ideas in politics,
literature or science.
The negotiations on access and benefit
sharing, within the current framework of
the CBD, do not address the issues created
by nationalisation of genetic resources.
The continuing imbroglio (Gnann et al
2010), even after nine years of negotiations,
underscores the impracticality of a
legally binding access and benefit-sharing
(ABS) regime. The resolution adopted by
the FAO in November 2009 summoned the
the Conference of Parties (CoP) of the CBD
to take into account the special nature of
the genetic resources for food and agriculture
as all countries depend on genetic
resources originating elsewhere to address
environmental, climate change,
natural resource, sustainable development
and food security challenges.9
The Tenth CoP, which was held in Nagoya,
Japan, in October 2010, adopted the
Nagoya Protocol on a framework to facilitate
ABS. However, the idea of ABS itself
remains a pipe dream. It is time the South
realises that the commercial benefits that
can be derived through sharing of biodiversity
and the associated traditional
knowledge are insignificant and irrelevant
in the context of ensuring food security.
Benefit-sharing can neither be a substitute
for innovation nor a sustainable
source of income for rural communities.
Moreover, restricting access to plant genetic
resources to counter corporate
patenting is akin to shadow-boxing as
most multinational seed corporations
together deal with no more than nine species
and are said to be self-sufficient with
breeding material for most of these commercial
crops. However, a corporate monopoly
can be effectively fought by developing
viable alternatives such as non-proprietary
seeds. This is exemplified by
the public sector research
and development system that fuelled
the green revolution in India.
The means adopted by the South to
address their grievances have now been
proved to be wrong and counterproductive.
A plausible way to address the issue
would have been to try to change the IPR
regime, rather than restricting access to
biodiversity. The developing world, in its
own interest, should forgo benefit-sharing
to facilitate free exchange of genetic
resources as the benefits from the latter far
outweigh those of benefit-sharing.
1 - Convention on Biological Diversity (1992),
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 5 June 1992, viewed on 5 June 2010.
2 - Biological Diversity Act (2002), No 18 of The Gazette of India Extraordinary, 5 February 2003, Pub Ministry of Law and Justice (Legislative Department), Government of India, New Delhi, viewed on 18 June 2010.
3 - Executive Order No 247 (1995): Prescribing guidelines
and establishing a regulatory framework for the prospecting of biological and genetic resources, their by-products and
derivatives, for scientific and commercial purposes; and other purposes, viewed on 18 June 2010.
4 - FAO (1983): "International undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources", Resolution 8/83, C 83/REP/8, Rome, 22 November.
5 - FAO (1989): "Agreed Interpretation of the International Undertaking", Resolution 4/89, Rome, 29 November.
6 - FAO (2008): "The State of Food Insecurity in the World",
viewed on 19 June 2010.
7 - FAO (2001): "International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture", Resolution 3/2001, Rome, November.
International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (2006): Developing access and benefit-sharing regimes plant
genetic resources for food and agriculture. Policy brief, viewed on 18 June 2010.
9 - Report of the Conference of FAO,
Thirty-sixth Session Rome, 18-23 November 2009, viewed on 1 March 2010.
Almeida, C (2009):
"New Hope in War against Deadly Wheat Fungus", SciDev. Net, 19 March, viewed on 19 June 2010.
Gnann J, S Jungcurt, E Morgera, N Schabus and E Tsioumani (2010):
"Summary of the Ninth Meeting of the Working Group on Access
and Benefit-sharing of the Convention on Biological Diversity", 22-28 March, Earth Negotiations Bulletin,
9 (503): 1-16, viewed on 19 June 2010.
Grajal, A (1999): "Biodiversity and the Nation State: Regulating Access to Genetic Resources Limits
Biodiversity Research in Developing Countries", Conservation Biology, 13(1), 6-10.
Kloppenburg, J and D L Kleinman (1987): "The Plant Germplasm Controversy", BioScience, 37(3), 190-98.
Laikre, L et al (2008): "Wanted: Scientists in the CBD Process", Conservation Biology, 22(4), 814-15.
Laird, S A and R Wynberg (2005):
"The Commercial Use of Biodiversity: An Update on Current Trends in Demand for Access to
Genetic Resources and Benefit- sharing and Industry Perspectives on ABS Policy and Implementation",
viewed on 19 June 2010.
Prathapan, K D and P D Rajan (2009):
"Biological Diversity Act, 2002: Threat to Agricultural Production and Food Security",
Current Science, 97(5), 626- 29, viewed on 19 June 2010.
Prathapan, K D et al (2006):
"Biological Diversity Act, 2002: Shadow of Permit-Raj over Research", Current Science, 91(8), 1006-07,
viewed on 19 June 2010.
"Death Sentence on Taxonomy in India", Current Science, 94(2), 170-71, viewed on 19 June 2010.
Rajan, P D and D Prathapan (2009): "Shared Ownership of Biological Resources", Science, 324, 1014-15.
Rosendal, G K (2003): "Interacting International Institutions: The Convention on Biological Diversity
and TRIPS – Regulating Access to Genetic Resources", paper presented as part of Interaction
between International Institutions: Synergies and Conflicts, 28 February.
– (2006): "Balancing Access and Benefit-sharing and Legal Protection of Innovations from Bioprospecting
Impacts on Conservation of Biodiversity", The Journal of Environment & Development, 15(4): 1-20.
ten Kate, K and S A Laird (2000): "Biodiversity and Business: Coming to Terms with the ‘Grand Bargain",
International Affairs, 76(1): 241-64.
Walt, V (2008):
"The World’s Growing Food-price Crisis", Time, 27 February, viewed on 19 June.
Wynberg, R, R Schroeder and R Chennells, ed. (2009): Indigenous Peoples, Consent and Benefit-sharing:
Lessons from the San-Hoodia Case (New York: Springer).