India: Prospering Through Piracy !

Last Updated: 19 September 2013
Article by Mrinalini Gupta

Most Read Contributor in India, September 2016

Bioprospecting is the discovery of biological and genetic resources present in nature for scientific research or commercial

Bioprospecting is the collection of biological resources, such as plants, animals or microorganisms from their ecological niche and analyzing it in vitro for the extraction of bioactive materials, such as active biochemicals or genetic materials for the purpose of developing a commercial product. However, when Bioprospecting is practiced without informing and taking free prior consent of the owners of the resources and without recompensing them - it is called biopiracy.

Approaches to Bioprospecting

There are following three approaches to Bioprospecting for the discovery of active biomaterial:

i. Random testing: In this approach, a wide variety of specimens form the greatest diversity is sampled. This approach is not only expensive but also inefficient.

ii. Bio-rational approach: This is the second approach for drug discovery through Bioprospecting. In this approach specific specimen from the wide variety of biological resources is targeted based on their known biological characteristics. Hence this approach is more useful and efficient than the first approach.

iii. Ethnobiological approach: Unlike other methods this one is non-random and is base on the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people to direct the sample selection. This approach is more economical and focused.

Lack of Compensation or Benefit Sharing

The benefits of the diverse biological resources available in developing countries have been reaped by the developed nations from centuries. The technologically advanced nations obtain some or the other kind of legal protection on the indigenous plants or biological material extracted thereof and then commercially exploit them without recompensing the countries from which they are taken. This uncompensated bioprospecting or lack of benefit sharing led to Biopiracy. This biological theft is an illegal collection by corporations who patent them for their own use.

As the intellectual property rights are granted to those who are first to invent (or isolate in case of biological material) and not to those who are first to discover or use, therefore, the indigenous communities who had been using it for a long time lose their traditional usage to commercial exploitation by the corporations who protect this knowledge through Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

Biopiracy is the commercial use of indigenous plants or their biological materials, such as genetic cell lines, by a technologically advanced countries or organizations without recompensing the people or nations in whose territory the materials were originally discovered

The myriad complex problems associated with Bioprospecting, such as increased incidences of Biopiracy in disguise of Bioprospecting and control of IPR over traditional knowledge, set in motion regulation of Bioprospecting.

Regulation of Bioprospecting

In recent years Biopiracy has tainted Bioprospecting so much so that it now needs to be regulated. Over the ages, the civilization has gained numerous therapeutic chemicals, cosmetics, agricultural and industrial products through Bioprospecting. Bioprospecting still continues to provide beneficial products to the humans but with an express objective of commercialization of the product. Lack of compensation or benefit sharing for access to biodiversity has raised certain important objections to Bioprospecting.

Keeping in mind that Bioprospecting plays a very important role in the preservation of biodiversity, bioprospectors cannot be outrightly forbidden from free access to bioprospect the biologically diverse ecosystem. Consequently, in 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed by 150 nations to address the international Bioprospecting issue. In addition to this, a parallel approach embodied in the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) was formulated in the same year.

The CBD and ICBG took initiatives to eliminate unregulated Bioprospecting globally. The compensated Bioprospecting basically involves taking prior consent from the host country, sharing the benefits and more importantly recognizing and protecting the rights of the indigenous knowledge holders.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

The CBD was signed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil in 1992. The Convention was opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on June 5, 1992 and entered into force on December 29, 1993. This was first of its kind as prior to this no formal globally recognized guidelines existed to compensate the source countries for use of their biodiversity through bioprospecting by foreign countries. It is legally binding on the member countries.

The Convention has following three main objectives:

  • the conservation of biological diversity,
  • the sustainable use of its components, and
  • the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.

The Convention also covers the widely growing field of biotechnology through its Cartagena Protocol on biosafety and access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilization through Nagoya Protocol.

Cartagena Protocol

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the CBD, also known as the Biosafety Protocol, was adopted in January 2000 and entered into force on September 11, 2004. The Biosafety Protocol intends to safe guard the biological diversity from the risks likely to be posed by modified living organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.

The Biosafety Protocol unambiguously mentions that any product made using modern day technologies must be based on the precautionary principles and must allow developing nations to balance public health against economic benefits.

Nagoya Protocol

The Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilization to the CBD is a supplementary agreement to CBD. The Protocol was adopted on October 29, 2010 in Nagoya, Aichi Province, Japan.

This protocol lays down a transparent legal framework for effective implementation of one of the three objectives of the CBD, i.e. the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.

International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG)

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) program initiated in 1992 is a collaborative effort of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The ICBG Program addresses the interdependent issues of drug discovery, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable economic. It promotes collaborative research between American universities and research institutions in countries that harbour unique genetic resources in the form of biodiversity - the practice known as bioprospecting1. Following are the three main objectives of ICBG program:

  • improving human health through discovery of new pharmaceutical, agricultural, and veterinary products for treating diseases of importance in both developed and developing countries;
  • conserving biodiversity through the understanding and valuation of diverse biological organisms and the progress of local capacity to manage these resources;
  • promoting sustainable economic activity in lessdeveloped counties by sharing benefits of drug discovery and conservation research processes and products.

Traditional knowledge database

In the year 2001 the Government of India launched a repository of about 1200 formulations of various systems of Indian medicine, such as Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha known as Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). This database was created in response to the increasing incidences of Biopiracy and growing awareness of Bioprospecting.

The frequent incidences of biopiracy, for example in the case of turmeric, neem and basmati rice, instigated Indian Government to translate and publish the ancient manuscripts containing old remedies in electronic form. These texts have been recorded from Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and Arabic and made available to patent offices in languages such as English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish.

To protect the Indian heritage and traditional knowledge from biopiracy the library has also signed agreements with leading international patent offices such as European Patent Office (EPO), United Kingdom Trademark & Patent Office (UKPTO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.


Bioprospecting is the discovery of biological and genetic resources present in nature for scientific research or commercial development. With the help of indigenous people of the source nation it is likely that a researcher can more efficiently and economically find the biological material of significance. However, continued uncompensated bioprospecting led to biopiracy. The fear of indigenous knowledge and local biodiversity being patented by bioprospecting firms became contentious by the year 1992.

Keeping in mind that Bioprospecting plays a very important role in the preservation of biodiversity, bioprospectors cannot be outrightly forbidden from free access to bioprospect the biologically diverse ecosystem. Consequently, in 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed by 150 nations to address the international Bioprospecting issue. In addition to this, a parallel approach embodied in the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) was formulated in the same year. The CBD and ICBG took initiatives to eliminate unregulated Bioprospecting globally.



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