GENTECH archive 8.96-97




OTC  17.10.96 02:34   

LONDON, (Oct. 15) (PANOS/IPS) - The Royal Botanic Gardens of Britain, one of 
world's oldest and largest, is to open a new seed bank just as pharmaceutical
companies are increasingly eyeing Northern botanical gardens for lucrative seed
deals that bypass Southern countries. 
   The botanical gardens, located at Kew in London, already has a collection of
10,000 seeds representing 4,500 species from around the world. The new
Millennium Seed Bank -- it is planned to be built by the year 2000 -- will be
considerably larger: it aims to store specimens of all of Britain's plant life
by the turn of the century and 10 percent of the world's arid and semi-arid 
flora specimens by 2010. 
   But the 21.5 million pound-project, funded by Britain's national lottery,
clearly needs to safeguard against pharmaceutical companies who have been
targeting collections held in Northern botanical gardens to avoid compliance to
an internationally-agreed United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
   The issue acquires added significance ahead of a Conference of Parties to 
CBD in Buenos Aires this November. 
   Botanical gardens are mega-storehouses of plant biodiversity, holding 
of as much as half of all vascular plant species in the world. Almost
three-quarters of all the world's botanical gardens are in the North, according
to a recent study by the International Association of Botanical Gardens 
   Because the seeds or genetic material are stored outside their locations of
origin, they are known as ex-situ collections. Pharmaceutical corporations and
biotechnology firms, in their quest to discover new sources of plant-derived
drugs, are now approaching botanical gardens for rights to chemically analyze
their collections. 
   In doing so, they seek to take advantage of a loophole in the CBD. 
   The U.N. convention, agreed at Rio in 1992, states that companies should
share commercial benefits from plants with the countries where they were found.
But if companies obtain specimens collected by botanical gardens before 1992,
they are under no such obligation. 
   "Commercial sale of tropical plant biodiversity held in Northern botanical
gardens is a dangerous loophole that undermines the Biodiversity Convention and
makes a mockery of the CBD's fundamental principles: provisions for national
sovereignty over germplasm, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits
arising from utilization of genetic resources," says the Canadian
nongovernmental organization, Rural Advancement Foundation International 

   Roger Smith, head of seed conservation at Kew told Panos that pharmaceutical
companies have asked Kew for permission to test seeds, but said the gardens
carefully screened them and ensured any benefits also went to "our 
in the South." 
   "Yes pharmaceutical companies do make requests to us, but they have to come
back to us if its for commercial use."' He said the Royal Botanic Gardens had
specific agreements with their collaborators in the South to share commercial
benefits from seeds held by the bank. 
   "We provide seeds for bona fide requests. This is based on trust and we
believe that those who use this service are honorable. But Kew does not have 
resources to police what they do with the seeds. To fully guard against
biopiracy, biology has to move into the realms of law enforcement and 

   "We are hoping to be an example where others can see how we do it and take
the technology away to resource their own seed bank initiatives in their own
countries," Smith added. 
   However, many NGOs say sharing benefits with Southern collaborators skirts
the issue. "Kew Gardens wants to run it on an expert-to-expert basis, which
doesn't necessarily imply justice," said Christine von Weizsacker of the
Bonn-based NGO, ECOROPA. 
   News of the new biopiracy first broke in Europe -- home to 76 percent of the
world's forest and medicinal plant collection -- when a contract proposed by 
U.S.-based Phytera Pharmaceuticals to Palm Garden in Frankfurt, Germany, was
leaked to NGOs at a conference organized by the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) in Leipzig in June. 
   Follow-up surveys conducted by RAFI and other NGOs have alarmed many experts
- -- for instance, every botanical garden replying to RAFI's request for
information confirmed that pharmaceutical researchers or their intermediaries
have recently expressed inter est in their collection. 
   Charles Lamoreax, Director of the University of Hawaii's Lyon Arboretum, 
he has been approached recently by "three or four" pharmaceutical companies. 
   "I suspect there will be many more people knocking on our door in the near
future...We may have things that it's going to be hard to get out of other
countries in the world," he said. 
   Edward Hammond, a research officer with RAFI, said: "The CBD has recognized
this loophole since 1993; but its continued inaction on ex-situ collections
allows pharmaceutical companies and other researchers to profit from the 
biodiversity while conveniently ignoring issues of national sovereignty, 
sharing, and access provisions of the CBD." 
   One reason why pharmaceutical companies have been able to make inroads into
these collections is that Northern botanical gardens are increasingly 
by cuts in funding, according to Hammond. 
   "Governments in the South and indigenous peoples, who are anxious to ensure
an equitable sharing of benefits from the use of their biodiversity find their
interests threatened by Northern botanical gardens needs to find funds for 
own survival." 
   Smith acknowledged there is a major problem with international biopiracy --
the Royal Botanic Gardens is so concerned, it has now employed an environmental
lawyer to sit at meetings of the CBD and look into the issue and "ensure we are
working within the Convention." 
   He also stressed the need to "expose the cowboys in any country willing to
flout their national laws, as also people who might want to avoid the spirit of
the CBD." The commercial potential of "one or two" plant-derived chemicals,
according to him, is "quite mind-boggling." 
   RAFI's concern is echoed by British NGOs working in the food sector. Patrick
Mulvaney of a coalition of NGOs called the UK Food Group said Northern 
gardens "ought to be discussing these issues with national governments and 
communities before entering into contracts with pharmaceutical companies." 
   Elsewhere in Europe, too, NGOs are similarly concerned. And there are signs
that botanical gardens in both Europe and the US are having serious second
thoughts about entering into deals that seek to bypass the CBD. 
   NGOs believe the issue concerning Northern botanical gardens must be
addressed when the Third Conference of Parties to the CBD meets in Buenos Aires
this November. "If the CBD does not follow through on its commitment to act, 
Southern Parties to the Convention may lose half or more of the value of the
biodiversity material that will be commercially useful in the next few decades,
" Hammond warned. 
    Copyright 1996