Can 'plant passports' put bioprospecting back on track?
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 sought to promote the sustainable use of biological resources in a way that would bring benefits to countries where they are found — many being the poorer developing nations. But instead, the search for potentially valuable natural products, such as medicinal compounds in plants, has often elicited suspicion and fear of exploitation.
In this article, Rex Dalton describes how, although some success stories exist, the predicted bonanza of new drugs has failed to materialise. This is partly because major pharmaceutical firms have withdrawn funding — apparently put off both by doubts about commercial benefits, and by a lack of firm rules about benefit-sharing between host nations, scientists and commercial sponsors.
A new framework under discussion may dispel fears on all sides — and lure the commercial giants back into the field. A central component would be a user-friendly certificate that would travel with compounds stating their origin and who hold rights to them, a bit like a passport. But the United States is raising barriers to a new access and benefit-sharing agreement. And there are fears that biological resources may disappear before agreement is reached.
Reference: Nature 429, 598 (2004)