The Issue of Biopiracy in Agriculture
Zoom in on definitions of the following key terms: Traditional Knowledge, biopiracy and bioprospecting. Gain a stronger perspective on how biopiracy is reflected in the agriculture industry via examples of stevia, turmeric, ashwagandha, teff flour and maca appropriation.
Traditional Knowledge (TK)
Rooted in ancient learnings, TK is a so-called ‘living body of knowledge’ which is passed down within a community for centuries. TK encompasses everything from skills, innovations and know-how to language, symbols, and signs. Examples of TK contexts include agriculture, biodiversity, medicine, ecology and technology. For any given community, TK plays a significant role in shaping people’s cultural and spiritual identity. The difficulty in protecting TK lies in its tangibility or inherent lack thereof. While trademarks or patents protect conventional technologies, this is not typically the case for oral knowledge transfer. Thus, around the world corporations or governments can still financially benefit from TK, without adequately compensating respective communities for their contribution.
Merriam Webster defines ‘biopiracy’ as follows: “the unethical or unlawful appropriation or commercial exploitation of biological materials that are native to a particular country or territory without providing fair financial compensation to the people or government of that country or territory”. These biological compounds encompass plant, animal and chemical compounds. Furthermore, the term ‘biopiracy’ can also be extended to the appropriation of knowledge about practices related to these compounds, such as farming techniques or the extraction of medicinal properties. Though researchers in the pharmaceutical industry are considered some of the most common perpetrators, extensive accounts of actors in the agriculture industry attempting to patent resources or products from less affluent communities and regions have been recorded (see case study examples below). Not only are these peoples then being denied fair compensation for their TK and genetic resources, but the resulting monopolies can fuel further dependencies of developing nations on large corporations. These occurrences are observed in markets for seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides as well as raw materials and ingredients.
The links between modern-day biopiracy and colonialism are undeniable, and incidences of biopiracy sometimes coined as ‘neo-colonial’ or ‘biocolonial’. Thanks to growing international awareness about the exploitative nature of biopiracy, the World Intellectual Property Organization (IPO) Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) is working to define international legal parameters that ensure the protection of and compensation for the use of TK, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.
In 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity recognised that “states have sovereign rights over their natural resources, and that terms and conditions for access to these materials are within the domain of national legislation.” When research groups or corporations explore and utilise TK and biological resources for commercial purposes in ethical ways, for example by compensating states and communities for the provision of endemic raw ingredients, this is referred to as ‘bioprospecting’. The difficulty here lies not in the concept itself but in the challenges related to monitoring and enforcing bioprospecting agreements. This brings back the age-old questions of transparency, traceability and accountability. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ATC) The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ATC) highlights that the result is often little more than legalised forms of biopiracy. When properly implemented, bioprospecting entails that corporations and governments inject profits directly back into local communities, set up infrastructures to empower and benefit their peoples, and conduct conservation efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of resources at-hand.
BIOPIRACY IN AGRICULTURE: 5 CASE STUDIES
Imagery: (1) Priscilla du Preez, (2) Scott Umstattd, (3) Harry Thaker and (4) Pieter de Malsche via Unsplash.com