The European Parliament has agreed to rules that would prevent EU companies, particularly in the pharmaceuticals sector, from exploiting the natural resources of the world's indigenous communities by recognising their 'intellectual property rights' over local biodiversity.
In the vote yesterday (12 September), MEPs rubber-stamped the next stage of the EU's ratification of the Nagoya protocol, a UN convention on biodiversity signed by leaders in the Japanese city in 2010.
The convention regulates the protection of biodiversity by setting limits on the amount of a genetic resource, such as plant or animal material, that companies can exploit to make their products.
The rules also confer ownership of the resources to the indigenous communities where they are found and 'intellectual property rights' to traditional knowledge associated with them.
"This legislation is a real step forward. It reinforces the sharing of benefits, offers better traceability along the user chain from research to marketing, and sets up a mechanism against biopiracy," said French Green MEP Sandrine Bélier, who led the proposal through Parliament.
Bélier had previously told EurActiv that she hoped that the legislation would pass at the first parliamentary reading. Yesterday she warned of attempts to dilute the rules.
"The EP resisted last-minute attempts aiming to weaken this report and the EU's presence at the negotiating table. Parliament sent a strong signal to the EU and the global community that we must respect our international obligations."
The Parliament vote means that the regulation will pass on to the European Council of Ministers, whose agreement is needed to make the convention EU law.
But obstacles remain due to vested interests, particularly in the European pharmaceuticals industry. "90% of genetic resources are in the south and 90% of the patents are in the north," Bélier said.
Plants such as the "Enola", a yellow bean native to Mexico, and Pelargonium sidoides, a South African variety of geranium known for its antimicrobial and expectorant qualities, have been the subjects of long-running biopiracy cases.
EU's top environment official, Janez Potočnik, said the rules would have "important implications for European innovation and economic growth".
Populations owning the genetic resources, including indigenous groups, are likely to reward countries and companies which seek to protect their biodiversity and intellectual property rights.
"US companies are becoming interested in biodiversity. [But] there is trust, for example in Africa, towards the EU," Bélier said.
A number of companies have already begun voluntary initiatives to compensate indigenous communities for use of their resources. "Private actors appear favourable … wanting to challenge biopiracy. We have to highlight the companies which are going to do it," Bélier said.
Only 16 countries have ratified the Nagoya protocol. The EU and 24 of its 28 member states have signed the convention. When EU ministers ratify the convention, Nagoya will soon reach the 50 states needed for it to come into force.
The deadline for ratification of the Nagoya protocol is July 2014.
"On the one hand, ABS [Access and Benefit Sharing] concerns biodiversity conservation and our respect for other countries' sovereign rights, and the rights of indigenous and local communities related to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources," said the EU's top environment official, Janez Potočnik.
“We are disappointed with the outcome”, comments Garlich von Essen, secretary general of the European Seed Association. “Not enough attention has been paid to the specific nature of plant and animal breeding, despite a strong call from a large alliance of organisations from the agricultural sector and even a respective proposal from the Parliament’s own Agricultural Committee.”
ESA added in a statement that under current EU law plant breeders can access commercially available genetic material for research and breeding without restrictions. The Parliament vote would hinder this access. "Under such conditions, European businesses will be discouraged to use such material and without access and use, there will also be no benefits to share! This will be at the expense of countries looking for income from the system and of plant breeding innovation," von Essen said.
- July 2015: Deadline for the ratification of the Nagoya protocol