As genetic research becomes more sophisticated, so does our ability to use plants and animals to develop new drugs or modify crops to meet food security needs.
Often, in the search for new bio resources, researchers draw on local people’s traditional knowledge about the properties of a particular plant, animal or chemical compound. When researchers use traditional knowledge without permission, or exploits the cultures they’re drawing from – it’s called biopiracy.
Biopiracy happens when researchers or research organizations take biological resources without official sanction, largely from less affluent countries or marginalized people.
Biopiracy is not limited to drug development. It also occurs in agricultural and industrial contexts. Indian products such as the neem tree, tamarind, turmeric, and Darjeeling tea have all been patented by foreign firms for different lucrative purposes.
A less politically charged word for biopiracy is bio prospecting. This is more commonly used by research groups who attempt to search for biological resources in a legal and respectful manner.
Sadly, not many positive examples of bioprospecting exist. Ideally, it involves ethical considerations such as prior informed consent, access and benefit sharing agreements, and material transfer agreements before research commences. Earnings from any commercial products should go towards local conservation efforts and the construction of infrastructure.
Recently, a bio-piracy case surfaced between the French Institute for Development Research (IRD) and local officials in French Guiana, an overseas department and former colony of France. This dispute exemplifies several common misunderstandings in biopiracy.
French researchers conducted interviews in French Guiana to find out about local anti malarial remedies. That preliminary research was published in 2005, and ten years later, a patent was granted for a new compound from the plant Quassia amara which had anti malarial properties.