The proposed changes to the Nagoya Protocol—the 2010 framework builds on the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that guarantees a nation’s right to its biological wealth and biodiversity—present an unique dilemma. If accepted, these would mean that researchers, including corporate-backed ones, will have to seek a country’s permission to use “digital gene sequence information”, or genetic information stored in publicly available databases, obtained from plants and animals native to the country. This could mean—as a report in the journal, Science, says citing Europeans scientists—that researchers get caught in bureaucratic nightmares. Rejection, activists say, will lead to exploitation of biological wealth of nations by corporations, sometimes at the cost of existing local knowledge and knowledge creation.
Even if the proposal is accepted, the implementation already looks shaky—while it is nearly impossible to impose curbs on data already available on the internet, the US, home to many rich biotech firms, never ratified the CBD and Nagoya Protocol. Biopiracy, which the Protocol seeks to crack down upon, is a problem affecting many developing nations with rich biodiversity. For instance, US firm WR Grace managed to wrest a patent for a neem oil-based fungicide even though it has long been used in the Indian subcontinent for the very same purpose. Under the Nagoya Protocol, researchers have to tell a country’s government what they intend to study during a visit, and the country can ask them to draft a plan to share the benefits accruing from the organisms they study. But, with genetic information now readily available, many studies can easily bypass these requirements. However, given the resources and talent that Western biotech firms have, the proposed requirements could also mean that a beneficial discovery that could have occurred much sooner with unrestricted access to information, may get delayed if a country refuses to play ball or takes time to permit use of the data. The global community thus has to tread a fine balance between the rights of nations and facilitating rapid advancement in biotechnology.