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  • Peru proposes international 'genetic passports'

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[LIMA] Experts from 25 countries have backed a Peruvian proposal to create 'passports' for genetic resources — such as plants, animals and microorganisms — to help track their use outside the country of origin.

The scheme, put forward by the Technical Expert Group of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Lima, Peru last week (22–25 January), would allow countries to control the use of such resources outside of their borders.

The international transfer of genetic material has decreased in recent years due to over-regulation and distrust. It is hoped that the passport system may help rebuild trust, improve efficiency, and tackle biopiracy — the uncompensated commercial use of biological resources.

The passports would cover all types of genetic resources — animals, plants and microorganisms. They would specify information such as the material's origin, its characteristics and the institutions responsible for providing it and using it.

In 1992, 150 countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which says each country has sovereignty over genetic resources originating within its borders.

But creating an international agreement on transferring genetic resources between countries has proved tricky. An ideal scheme must ensure the equitable sharing of benefits with the original 'owner', as well as avoid disputes over undue appropriation by research institutions or private companies.

It is hoped that the new proposal — which was first suggested in 1994 and will be presented in October 2008 at the next Conference of Parties of the CBD in Montreal, Canada — will achieve this.

One solution could involve a contract between the original discoverer of the material and its eventual users, stipulating the intended use — such as a plant being screened for therapeutic effects against certain diseases — as is already required by law in the Andean Community of Nations.

But, according to the Technical Expert Group, the biggest challenge will be the scheme's ability to provide recognition for the knowledge of indigenous communities. It recommends that countries keep a register of traditional knowledge, such as plant breeding methods.

Olivier Jalbert, principal officer at the CBD secretariat, says the scheme would provide contracts benefiting the communities that use the resources so that their traditional knowledge is not unfairly exploited.

Jalbert explains that a passport certificate for each resource would be issued by a national authority — such as a government ministry or national institute of genetic resources — of the country owning the genetic resource.

The Technical Expert Group comprises lawyers, biologists, politicians, philosophers, plant breeders, entomologists and other specialists from 25 of the convention's signatory countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Peru.

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