Friday, February 20, 2009

David Fairchild and the UN Convention on Biodiversity

Earlier this month I traveled to Miami to receive the David Fairchild Medal for plant exploration. On the long trip, I had time to think about the legacy of David Fairchild and other plant explorers.

Plant explorers have been responsible for the internationalization of many of the plants that we use for food, flowers, medicines and other natural products. Just think what life would be like if, in the year 1492, international law had made it impossible to take plants from one place to another without first agreeing with local authorities to pay royalties in perpetuity for plants taken out of their lands. Perhaps eighty percent of all the food that city people eat, and most of the plants that farmers and gardeners grow, would be deleted, for such is our dependence worldwide on the sharing of plant genetic resources. Almost nobody is free from such dependence. There would be total legal gridlock over who to pay, how much, and to whom.

Before the UN Convention on Biodiversity, genetic resources were considered the common resource of humankind. This principle was rejected at the Convention, and biodiversity became the property of nations. In Malaysia, the nation is a federation of component states, so the individual states have laid claim to ‘their biodiversity’. Within the state of Sarawak, the tribal communities of the interior now have the idea that they own the germplasm on their tribal lands. Within the tribal communities, adjacent villages are now concerned about which plants in the forest belong to which community.

All this began with US Court decisions allowing the patenting (in effect, grants of ownership) of biological materials. Since then, we have been sliding down a slippery slope. In the US, they say patents are necessary to promote investment in research and development. In the developing countries, they think money will be made in royalties or rents from the sale of rights to access their biodiversity.

Before boarding my flight to the US I bought a copy of Newsweek. In it was an article on how the development of new medicines has been stymied by the dense thicket of patents in the way. The big pharmaceutical companies have found it impossible to negotiate though such thickets. Goodbye to major advances in drug discovery!

This reminded me of a conference in Kuching that I attended recently, at which a representative of Bioversity (the international organization that promotes the conservation of agricultural biodiversity), said that international plant breeding work has come almost to a standstill. Plant breeding requires the use of breeding stocks of diverse origins, and nobody wants the hassle of negotiating with multiple claimants for the right to use breeding materials. The Green Revolution of the 1950s to 1980s, based on high-yielding cereals and other food crops bred from germplasm made freely available to plant breeders, has kept the world free of famine since World War II. This era of plant-breeding in the service of humanity has ended. Nobody in their right minds would want to get entangled in a legal gridlock. There will not be another green revolution!

I was carrying with me a scientific presentation to deliver in conjunction with the Award. In that presentation, I had to cite from the work many other scientists—very few scientific papers can be written without reference to previous works. If it had been obligatory to obtain permission from each of the scientists I had to cite, I would never have written my paper. But science is based on the principle that knowledge is the universal property of all humankind as soon as it is published. Those who do not share, do not publish, do not get cited, and do not get recognized. If all scientists withdraw from sharing of knowledge, it would be goodbye to science!

But universities and research institutions have been diverting money from research into patent application, counting their patents as a measure of research productivity. Patent offices, swamped by patent applications, are approving patents with lower and lower standards of examination. They have decided leave it to the patent holders to sort themselves out in court. Eventually, nobody will be able to afford the legal costs, not even the commercial organizations that lobbied for patent protection in the first place.


Ken Yeh said...

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body.

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac McPherson, 1813

Tan Swee Lian said...

I can't agree more with the both of you. As a plant breeder I see increasingly the "selfishness" of the younger generation of scientists in sharing ideas, information and germplasm. Even if they are willing, national policies may stand in their way. It seems like the world today is driven by money and greed! No money, no talk! What a sad state of affairs.

Andrea said...

In the olden days when scientists discover information/technologies for knowledgesake, it is "publish or perish", today it is (they say) "publish and perish"! Their motto now is "patent-protect-publish-profit". This world is just showing us that our resources cannot sustain the expanding population (or maybe the greedy population). The Malthusian theory is proving itself.