Bioprospecting promises revolutionary discoveries — but must first reckon with its postcolonial legacy
by Bria Metzger, '20
Edited by Elana Balch, '21.5
Graphic novelist Chris Ware, when asked how he represented nature in his art, replied: “[...] there is no greater art on planet Earth than the planet itself [...] no greater beauty to be found in any painting or musical or literary work than can be found in the increasingly fine structures of any leaf, or how that leaf functions as part of its tree or its surroundings or its life cycle or the knowledge that its atoms came from stars that collapsed billions of years ago and billions of light-years away .”
We have been rightfully fascinated by nature’s ingenuity for thousands of years. For almost as long, we’ve found ways to use its wildest innovations for our own purposes. Plants in particular have proven useful. Rooted in one place, unable to hunt for food or flee from predators, the pressure was on to evolve novel mechanisms of defense and survival . In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates reported using a “bitter herb” derived from willow bark to soothe aches — today called aspirin. The 1972 breakthrough antimalarial Artemisinin, now part of standard treatment, was isolated from the traditional Chinese medicinal plant sweet wormwood . These are just two examples amongst the vast array of biologically-sourced medicines; one research initiative estimated that at least 7000 medical compounds in the Western pharmacopoeia are derived from plants . With recent advances in molecular methods, scientists are once again turning to the natural world with the hope that evolution has already solved our most pressing problems.
Bioprospecting has been broadly defined as the “search for useful products derived from bioresources including plants, microorganisms, animals, etc., that can be developed further for commercialization and overall benefits of the society. .” The history of bioprospecting reaches across several nations and centuries. While the term itself is relatively new, the premise is derived from centuries of natural resource exploitation. Bioprospecting has been mired in controversy since it first began, and the debates are about far more than scientific value; they are manifestations of essential questions about ownership, responsibility, commodification, and respect.
On June 5th 1992, delegates from all over the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the first Convention on Biological Diversity. The convention sprang up in response to conversations about conservation, sustainability, and the sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources — including bioprospecting. These were fresh concerns for a world just gaining the terms to talk about them.
In 1988, famed ecologist E.O. Wilson published the book “Biodiversity” — considered the first major publication to use this now-ubiquitous term. In 1980, U.S. patent law first infiltrated genetics. As a products of nature rather than man’s meddling, genetic material was considered unpatentable until General Electric made history by patenting the engineered “oil eater” bacterium. By 1990, the patent office had established rules for claiming DNA sequences. Less than a year later, Amgen patented the first gene . With patenting came ownership, and, of course, profit. In a matter of years, our concept of the planet’s biodiversity came into sharp focus — and both conservation specialists and businesses in search of the next breakthrough were paying close attention to the murky, ill-defined boundaries of new versus natural knowledge.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) sought to set standards for reckoning with this recent boom in the commercialization of biological diversity. Their articles  envisioned a future in which bioprospecting would support a viable “conservation economy” — a market-based incentive for preserving biodiversity. Specific provisions were put in place to ensure that biodiversity-rich but economically-poor countries were compensated for the products derived from organisms within their borders. But the CBD’s concepts of benefit sharing and sustainable development did not translate into international law or ethic.
A recent report from Ecuador took inventory of all patent requests for products derived from Ecuador’s endemic resources. They found that five countries — the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and South Korea — we responsible for 113 of the 128 patents requests. At a presentation of the report in 2016 , René Ramírez, chief of the department of higher education, science, technology and innovation, confirmed that these foreign prospectors had not sought authorization from Ecuador before monetizing Ecuador’s endemic resources.
These transgressions represent only a narrow fraction of the violations of the CBD’s articles and the intent behind them. The dual identity of these sources of biodiversity — both organisms embedded in an ecosystem and resources to be commodified — is an oversimplification. Many of these organisms have rich cultural significance and are far from unknown in their native distribution, and yet have been the subject of Western companies’ attempts to patent traditional and indigenous knowledge.
As of 2019, the Convention has 196 parties, which includes 195 countries and the European Union . With the conspicuous exception of the United States, all members of the United Nations have ratified the treaty. Yet, as Ecuador found, ratification of the treaty does not guarantee respect or revenue.
Bioprospecting once seemed the ultimate solution to crises of disease, energy, and conservation. Compounds contained within any number of life’s diverse forms could change the face of medicine, restructure industry, and make the protection of biodiversity a more profitable option than ecosystem destruction. But no science can exist within a vacuum. The fate of bioprospecting depends on researchers recognizing the wrongs embedded in bioprospecting’s history, intertwined as it is with legacies of colonialism and exploitation. If researchers can come from a place of respect and accountability, bioprospecting might fulfill its promise of a more sustainable future for everyone.