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How Should the Benefits of Bioprospecting Be Shared?

Bioprospecting—the search for valuable chemical products in natural biological resources—is an important source of novel chemical and biological products with potential uses in medicine, agriculture, and other industries. But a great deal of the world’s “biodiversity” is found in developing countries, which often lack the research capacity to make use of it. Bioprospecting in such environments generally requires outside bioprospectors and sponsors from the developed world. This has led to concern that bioprospectors will take what is valuable without compensating the community from which the samples come or whose knowledge led to the discovery. Critics label such practices “biopiracy.”

Current good practice for bioprospecting consistent with the Convention on Biological Diversity is found in the benefit-sharing arrangements of the U.S.-sponsored International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups, or ICBGs. These arrangements specify, first, that benefit-sharing agreements should be negotiated with the local community and require the prior informed consent of its members, and second, that benefits should be shared in return for access to genetic resources and for the use of the community’s “traditional knowledge” about the pharmacological properties of local flora and fauna under study.

From the perspective of Western accounts of property, both these principles appear strange. This paper seeks to justify benefit-sharing in a way that both gives guidance about what is owed to whom and makes sense of these puzzling features.

Bioprospecting—the search for valuable chemical products in natural biological resources—is an important source of novel chemical and biological products with potential uses in medicine, agriculture, and other industries. But a great deal of the world’s “biodiversity” is found in developing countries, which often lack the research capacity to make use of it. Bioprospecting in such environments generally requires outside bioprospectors and sponsors from the developed world. This has led to concern that bioprospectors will take what is valuable without compensating the community from which the samples come or whose knowledge led to the discovery. Critics label such practices “biopiracy.”

Current good practice for bioprospecting consistent with the Convention on Biological Diversity is found in the benefit-sharing arrangements of the U.S.-sponsored International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups, or ICBGs. These arrangements specify, first, that benefit-sharing agreements should be negotiated with the local community and require the prior informed consent of its members, and second, that benefits should be shared in return for access to genetic resources and for the use of the community’s “traditional knowledge” about the pharmacological properties of local flora and fauna under study.

From the perspective of Western accounts of property, both these principles appear strange. This paper seeks to justify benefit-sharing in a way that both gives guidance about what is owed to whom and makes sense of these puzzling features.

Joseph Millum, "How Should the Benefits of Bioprospecting Be Shared?" Hastings Center Report 40, no 1 (2010): 24-33.

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