Bioprospecting or Biopiracy? Final Draft

This discussion topic submitted by Bethany Wise ( at 11:05 PM on 4/1/02. Additions were last made on Monday, April 1, 2002.

Bethany Wise

Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?

The medical use of fauna and flora is no revolutionary idea. As early as the fifth century BC, Hippocrates reported using a “bitter herb” derived from willow tree bark to treat aches and pains (Locke). We now know this “bitter herb” derivative as aspirin, a common household drug. Centuries later, the search for medicinal fauna and flora continues. This search has become a billion-dollar project, funded mainly by pharmaceutical companies. Most of these pharmaceutical companies are North American and European, but little biodiversity exists in those regions. As a result, these companies must travel to other regions more biologically diverse and typically economically unstable. Costa Rica is an ideal example of such a region.

Costa Rica is home to a large percentage of the worlds remaining rain forests. Costa Rica’s rain forests alone are estimated to hold 5-7% of the world’s remaining biodiversity (RAFI). The large amount of predicted biodiveristy, makes Costa Rica an obvious choice for the efforts of biodiversity searches. Unfortunately, much of this biodiversity is being eliminated on a daily basis. Rain forest land is converted to cropland by native peoples, who live in unstable economic conditions. This cropland however, loses its productivity after just a few years. In short, these people and similar nations “sacrifice their ecological resources for short-term economic gain” (Sternlof). Researchers estimate that at least ninety percent of these vanishing plants have never been studied for their chemical properties (Goering).

Biodiversity prospecting has been suggested as a solution to this dilemma. Biodiversity prospecting, or bioprospecting, involves “the exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and indigenous knowledge for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources” (RAFI). Bioprospecting could be a useful tool in economic conservation, if bioprospectors leased bioprospecting rights or gave a portion of their profits to the country of origin. In 1991, Costa Rica’s GNP was $5.2 Billion, whole a large drug companies (Merck) sales totaled $8.6 billion (RAFI). The estimated average cost of research for a new drug is $231 million, fairly inexpensive in comparison to Merck’s anual sales. Given that Merck had three drugs in 1991, with sales exceeding $1 billion each, it is not implausible to expect drug companies to engage in profit sharing (RAFI). Such profits would allow nations to protect their valuable melting pots of biodiversity. However, such a system is still idealistic and is rarely implemented.

In the past, pharmaceutical companies have engaged in bioprospecting without reimbursing the indigenous people or nations from which new compounds are discovered. More recent legislation has attempted to prevent such unrestricted bioprospecting, or what is often referred to as “biopiracy.” The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, protects indigenous land rights within the realm of bioprospecting (Kingsley). However, the act does not recognize indigenous rights to intellectual property (Kingsley). It is the knowledge of these indigenous people that has proven to be very valuable to bioprospectors. Pharmaceutical companies say about one in 10,000 analyzed species, eventually result in a marketable drug. A company which worked directly with shaman and local healers, claimed a success rate with 50% of the organisms they analyzed (RAFI). By these measures, indigenous knowledge is 5,000 times more effective than random sampling and analysis.
Unfortunately, indigenous people are all too often unaware of the value of their knowledge. Bioprospectors typically go into the region, befriend the shaman or healer, and learn about the medicinal properties of regional organisms (Samath). Other attempts to address the problem more directly have also failed. International patents were designed to help nations protect their economically valuable inventions. These patents have actually done more harm than good. Developing nations do not have the resources to analyze all of their biodiversity. They cannot patent many organisms because international patents cost $60,000 each. Instead, “foreign” nations are acquiring patents for compounds, which have been used in the originating nation for generations (Samath). Some bioprospectors have even used the indigenous people’s knowledge against them. Many different regions are home to the same organisms, but different legislation. Once bioprospectors have secured valuable knowledge, they choose which region to cite as the region of origin. Most of the time, they choose the regions with the least legislation surrounding issues of profit sharing. When companies do agree to the terms of intellectual property systems or are restricted in their bioprospecting, indigenous communities still see little or no sharing of benefits. Pharmaceutical companies look for any loophole, which could decrease their profit sharing. Some companies have agreed to donate a percentage of their royalties to the local or indigenous people (RAFI). One such company was G.D. Searle and Company. This company negotiated with Washington University, paying them $15,000 per year, for four year (RAFI).

The university was then to use these funds to benefit inhabitants of the area of collection (of the organism), as compensation for the collection of the organism and its continued use. With this arrangement, indigenous people are guaranteed no direct monetary payment, and the distribution of money is left up to the university (RAFI).
Other cases have documented pharmaceutical companies trying to altogether avoid the nations of collection. In 1998, the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) approved a grant of $2.5 billion for bioprospecting in Mexico. Although the project never got off the ground, it would have had adverse affects. The publicly funded (U.S.) projects would have benefited private drug companies. One of the groups involved in the ICBG, would have collected samples, then sold their purified compounds to Glaxo Smith Kline, a private owned pharmaceutical company (Locke). This sale would have given Glaxo legal rights to the product, with no regard to the country of origin.

Pharmaceutical companies sight many reasons for their unwillingness to share their profits. New drugs are reportedly difficult to discover because they often consist of a combination of local organisms (Goering). When a potential new drug is discovered, it takes at least 10 to 15 years to get it to market. And quite simply, they say, lab and developed drugs are cheaper to develop and therefore more valuable (Goering).

However, few people will dispute the value of naturally derived drugs. Within the last decade, a drug was discovered, which effectively fights breast and ovarian cancer. This drug, called Taxol, was not developed in a laboratory. It was discovered in the pacific yew tree of the Northwestern United Sates (Locke). According to the World Wildlife Federation, 25% of all prescription drugs in use today, come from chemicals present in flowering plants (Locke).

The healing powers of many organisms would remain unknown, without the collaboration of bioprospectors. We rely on pharmaceutical companies to discover drugs, and put them in a form which can be easily utilized by the public. However, this does not excuse such companies from biopiracy for personal gain. Without the support of wealthy nations and corporations, developing countries cannot afford to conserve their ecological resources. Without conservation of ecological resources, many yet undiscovered organisms are likely to become extinct. And with the extinction of those organisms, potential miracle drugs will also remain undiscovered.


1) Goering, Laurie. (1995. September 12). Rain Forests May Offer New Miracle Drugs. Chicago Tribune, pg. 1.

2) Kingsley, Danny. (2001, September 25). Bioprospecting Gets a Boost. ABC Science Online.

3) Locke, Christopher. (2001, April 12). Forest Pharmers Go Bioprospecting: Looking for New Drugs in Rain Forests Raises Ethical Questions. Red Herring.

4) Samath, Feizal. (1998, December 16). Biopiracy is Flourishing Thanks to Many Pharmaceutical Companies. Inter Press Service.

5) Sternlof, Kurt. (2000, February 23). “Bioprospecting” Could Fuel Economic Incentives for Biological Conservation. Columbia University News.

6) Bioprospecting/Biopiracy and Indigenous Peoples. RAFI CommuniquŽ: Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Previous Article
Return to Topic Menu

Here is a list of responses that have been posted to your discussion topic...

Important: Press the Browser Reload button to view the latest contribution.

If you would like to post a response to this topic, fill out this form completely...

Response Title:

Optional: For Further Info on this Topic, Check out this WWW Site:
Response Text:

Article complete. Click HERE to return to the Research Menu.

It is 11:33:02 AM on Thursday, April 17, 2014. Last Update: Monday, April 1, 2002