Many medicines, cosmetics and other products are based on the ingenious forces of nature. Indigenous peoples have often used such healing powers for thousands of years – but when science and pharmaceutical companies discover them, develop them further, patent them and market them, they come away empty-handed. That is why, after more than 20 years of speeches in Geneva, an international treaty on patent rights to genetic resources and traditional knowledge is now to be adopted. The final round of negotiations begins on Monday (May 13) at the UN Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo) in Geneva.

What do jeans and sweeteners have to do with biopiracy?

They are examples. Jeans: In the early 1990s, a scientist published a paper on organisms from a salt lake in Kenya. One of them produces an enzyme that can work under extreme conditions. Chemical companies turned it into patented bleaching agents that are now used worldwide to create the “stonewashed” effect on jeans. Lake residents have finally secured payments from some companies after years of fighting.

Sweetener: Sweetening with stevia, a plant that indigenous peoples in Paraguay and Brazil have used for centuries, has been booming for years. Companies use stevia in jams, soft drinks and much more. They have secured patents for products made from the extract of the leaves. But the stevia farmers in South America have none of it.

Can you patent plants or organisms?

No. “A plant that occurs in nature cannot be patented like this,” says Wend Wendland, who heads the traditional knowledge department at Wipo. “That only works if scientists change them or extract something and use it to create a new product.” In Germany and many Western countries, access to genetic resources is free. “It is open to everyone to make a medicinal product from Alpine herbs,” says geoecologist Axel Paulsch of the German Press Agency, chairman of the German Institute for Biodiversity.

What is the fundamental problem?

Critics such as the Swiss non-governmental organization Public Eye say that “Western companies can still do business with ‘stolen’ goods with impunity.” A paper written at Berlin’s Humboldt University states: “The devaluation of non-Western knowledge and the simultaneous appropriation of technologically and commercially usable parts of this knowledge is one of the core concepts of European colonialism.” Many countries in the global south with great biodiversity say that if they are to preserve their forests and not cut them down – unlike industrialized countries in the past – they must at least share in the profits from the use of the genetic resources they contain.

But hasn’t this already been regulated worldwide?

In principle, yes: the international Nagoya Protocol came into force ten years ago. It regulates profit sharing for a country of origin or a special benefit if it grants access to genetic resources from which a marketable product is created. “In the past, you could take a medicinal plant from Ecuador, examine which genes are responsible for healing, make a medicine out of it and Ecuador had none of it. The Nagoya Protocol ensures a fair distribution of benefits,” says Paulsch.

However, the procedures are complicated, not everyone adheres to regulations and the monitoring does not work. Under the Wipo Treaty, companies would be required to indicate where their material originally comes from when registering a patent. This would allow countries of origin to check whether all permits have been obtained. Among other things, it is still controversial whether patents can be revoked if processes have been violated.

What do such contracts mean for patients and consumers? Is that why there are fewer medications or cosmetics?

For science, nature is one of the most important sources of remedies. “Approximately 70 percent of cancer drugs are obtained from natural products or synthetic compounds based on nature,” writes the World Health Organization (WHO). This requires research. “The more data and resources we have, the better we can do our job,” says Amber Scholz, microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ – German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures in Braunschweig, to the German Press Agency. “If the use of biological diversity becomes complicated, it limits our ability to solve social problems. Take vaccines, for example: If we don’t get material or DNA sequences quickly, there is no quick vaccine.” According to her, complicated requirements in some countries have already led to a decrease in research and cooperation in some areas of science. “Who knows what society has missed,” said Scholz.

So is science against all requirements?

No. Scholz emphasizes: “We are fighting for maximum scientific freedom, but we are clear that countries and people who were previously exploited are entitled to fair participation. We are striving to build a common mechanism that is sustainable and fair.” Paulsch says: “The challenge is to involve the countries in the use of the resources without making the requirements so strict that research is practically no longer possible.”

Are contracts like Nagoya or now at Wipo the solution to all problems?

Unfortunately no. “The new challenge is genetic engineering processes that can be used to imitate the active ingredients of a plant,” says Paulsch. “If the DNA is decoded and available in a database, you no longer need the plant. The big question: Should the country of origin of the plant still have a use?”

Experts refer to this as “digital sequence information (DSI)”. “At the moment, everyone can access sequences and do whatever they want with them,” says Pausch. Neither the Nagoya Protocol nor the Wipo Treaty deals with this. Negotiating the use of each sequence with a state is not practical, says Paulsch. “One suggestion is that companies and research institutions pay in one pot when they use sequences. The money should then benefit all countries that have a lot of genetic resources.” Further negotiations are needed on the issue.