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Biopiracy: protecting genetic resources in developing countries

Rosy periwinkle   Rosy Periwinkle ©Belga/Mindenpictures

The rosy periwinkle has been used in traditional medicine for centuries but has now been developed into a drug to treat leukaemia. Plants with medicinal properties are increasingly being used to create new medicine, but the indigenous people who first identified these features seldom get to share the profits. This is sometimes referred to as biopiracy and MEPs approved on 15 January a report by French Green MEP Catherine Grèze setting out how this could be tackled.

About biopiracy

Pharmaceutical companies regularly draw on traditional knowledge to identify plants or substances with medicinal properties. Companies can patent the composition and process that arise from the research and development inspired by traditional knowledge. Often the local communities that called attention to the plants' useful properties do not benefit from this and in some cases it can even make it difficult for them to make use of their own discoveries. The problem is not only confined to the medical sector. It can also apply to firms developing new varieties of fruit and vegetables.

There are concerns that biopiracy could impede developing countries' economic progress.Current legislation favours companies while traditional knowledge is offered little protection.

What could be done?

Ms Grèze proposes in her report a number of measures the EU could take to ensure that developing countries can benefit from their genetic resources and traditional knowledge. According to her, the EU should:

  • Adopt the UN Nagoya protocol, which aims to promote fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.
  • Introduce a new legal framework for granting patents, which would involve applicants having to disclose where ingredients for a product come from.  They would also have to prove that the ingredients were acquired in a fair and legal way. 
  • Assist developing countries in establishing the institutions required to benefit from genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

This article was originally published on 6 December 2012 following the vote in the development committee and updated on 17 January 2013.