“Gene rush” hampering collection of biodiversity for conservation

“Bad, inaccessible roads and terrorism often posed challenges,” says Salas who was held captive by the Shining Path five times during the 1980s while searching for tubers. “Now the biggest challenge is biopiracy regulation,” he comments.

Spurred by biotechnology advances and a “gene rush” made lucrative by the business of patents on genetic resources and traditional knowledge, governments like Peru’s have restricted access to biodiversity resources to protect their rich genetic heritage. In 1993, the international Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) was applied to conserve biodiversity, safeguard its sustainable usage, and ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.

“Regulation is definitely necessary to combat biopiracy and protect traditional knowledge,” explains Janny Van Beem of the Germplasm Acquisition and Distribution Unit of CIP, who, along with Salas, is a standing member of Peru’s National Commission Against Biopiracy.

The need to protect biodiversity is pressing. And the goal of biopiracy policies is to protect indigenous people from predatory pharmaceuticals or other for-profit entities. But currently there is no regulatory distinction between those seeking to collect genetic resources for conservation purposes and those hoping to exploit and patent them. It’s a tough balancing act.

“Now the challenge is finding a way to facilitate biodiversity conservation rather than impede it, without loosening the knot on biopiracy. The good news is that the Commission Against Biopiracy is working on this, and so we hope a new policy can come into effect soon,” notes Van Beem.

A fast track system for institutions collecting genetic material for conservation purposes is needed. Under current regulations it can take years to get a permission to collect genetic materials. The current process to collect roots and tubers for research is painstaking – involving numerous permits, government authorizations, agreements, quarantines, and more. For example, CIP’s authorization to collect wild potato material has been bogged down in bureaucracy for more than 10 years. In the end, the Peruvian government’s effort to stymie “biopiracy,” is also slowing down urgent work to conserve biodiversity.

“Because of climate change there is an urgent need to collect genetic material and store living samples of the world’s crop diversity and their wild relatives for safekeeping,” says Salas. Biodiversity is nature’s insurance policy – a natural weapon offering the flexibility to better adapt to adversities such as climate change. At present 90% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is concentrated in 17 tropical and sub-tropical countries – mostly in the southern hemisphere. Peru is among the most “mega-diverse” of these.

CIP is custodian of the world’s largest in vitro genebank housing more than 7,000 potato and wild potato samples amassed over a period of 40 years. With current regulations, replicating it today would be nearly impossible.

“While there are hurdles, there are also advancements,” notes Van Beem. The good news, she adds, is that the Peruvian government has the political will to evolve the regulation towards a win-win situation for science and biodiversity protection. For the past two years VanBeem has seen openness and willingness among key stakeholders and decision makers, concluding: “I’d say it’s just a matter of time.”

By: Jacqueline Becker