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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Florida Everglades and Tropical Blackwater systems

I finally got to see the famous Everglades of Florida, in the company of two botanists, Jack Fisher of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and David Lee of Florida International University.

It was a warm Sunday and the Everglades National Park had plenty of visitors. The most amazing sight was the large number of alligators sunning themselves on the side of the road. The Park Rangers warn visitors not to get closer than 10 feet of the alligators. It is a very serious offence to feed the animals.

I recognized a number of plants that are grown in Malaysia as ornamentals but which are native to the Everglades. These include the pond weed Pontederia cordata, the creeping palm Serenoa repens and the white-flowered sedge Dichromena sp.

I was intrigued that the water is black (actually tea-coloured)and the bed rock is limestone. In Malaysia blackwater is associated with sand, on the sandy plateaus of Gunong Tahan and the Maliau Basin and in the Kerangas forests of Borneo. Blackwater systems are reputed everywhere to be poor in nutrients. The colour is due to tannin leached out from decaying leaves. The question arises as to why ALL forested rivers systems are not blackwater systems. In Kuala Tahan in Malaysia's Taman Negara National Park, two great rivers meet. One is a blackwater river, the Sg Tahan, arising on a sandstone mountain and flowing over sand; the other is normal water from a granite mountain flowing over clay (derived from weathering of granite). This suggests that the reason for blackwater is the absence of clay to absorb tannins. Clay is also known to absorb and hold nutrients. In its absence, nutrients would flow out of the system. In Borneo 'kerangas' means 'land on which rice cannot be grown'. So the Everglades may be an American version of Kerangas.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

David Fairchild Medal

On 4 February I will be flying to Miami to receive the David Fairchild Medal. The medal is for plant exploration. It will be a long flight, 24 hours in the air with a short break in Paris. Coming back via Paris will take 21 hours.

David Fairchild was a plant explorer responsible for many plant introductions into the US from overseas before WWII. He bought a large property in Miami to house his collections. This property was named the Kampong. It now operates as part of the not-for-profit National Tropical Botanical Garden of the USA, dedicated to conservation, research and education relating to the world's rare and endangered tropical plants.

This is my first trip to Florida and I am looking forward to seeing the famous garden of David Fairchild.