Right in your backyard a multimillion dollar treasure could be waiting to be discovered by somebody, anybody. Generations of our people have taken home-grown “bush” medicine for granted, ignorant of its enormous potential economic value in the world of pharmacology.
But to harvest our hidden “mother lode”, first we have to claim ownership of it officially or we could lose it because this is intellectual property (IP) where oftentimes the principle of “finder’s keeper” is the winner.
IP is the product of mental work, intelligence, and creativity like the discovery of genetic resources (GR), the creation of computer software, inventions, music, and song. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are exclusive ownership rights to these properties, legally granted to prevent infringement by people stealing them, taking credit for them, and making massive profits while the true owners get nothing.
IPR examples are patents for discoveries, copyrights for songs, and trademarks for business.
For the purpose of brevity and relevance we focus patents and discovery of plant genetic resources. A patent provides monopoly ownership allowing the owner to dictate prices and collect royalties for use of the property.
Discovery is a mental exercise but genetic resources per se are not creations of the mind; they are nature’s base materials for patents in medicine, agriculture, and industry that attract IPRs.
Genetic resources contain the DNA gene materials, the foundation building blocks of all living organisms, man, plants, animals. Modern biotechnology uses genetic engineering to manipulate genes of living organisms for scientific research and commerce.
In industry, genetic enzymes enhance textiles, detergents, and chemical processes. In agriculture, it increases productivity with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormone-treated animals and seeds, and disease-resistant plant strains.
The pharmaceutical industry extracts chemical compounds to develop medicinal drugs. The global pharmaceutical industry is an estimated US$400 billion annual business projected to peak US$1.1 trillion by 2014.
Giant corporations like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Bristol-Myers lead the fight against epidemics, pandemics, and incurable diseases like HIV-AIDS and cancer, and modern pharmacology cannot exist without genetic resources.
In research and development (R&D) to find cures transnational pharmaceutical companies are attracted to the vast biogenetic and ethnobotanical diversity of Third World countries like Grenada.
Our forestry is a gene reservoir for bioprospecting insects, plants, and animals for extracting and isolating active ingredients to discover new drugs, and biopiracy takes place.
Biopiracy is the appropriation (stealing) of indigenous biologic/genetic material for patenting and commercialisation without permission or compensation to the owners.
Two notorious cases of biopiracy illustrate. For centuries the rural people of India used the neem tree bark as a natural pesticide, medical therapy, and other uses. A U.S. pharmaceutical company identified the active neem ingredient, patented it without permission, and made multi-millions with the drug.
In the fifties, the Eli Lilly Corporation surreptitiously patented Madagascar’s rosy periwinkle plants for drugs that treated leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease and made US$100 million annually from it. Not a cent was paid to these indigenous people.
There is a perception that wild genetic resources are “global commons” freely accessible to all because it is for the good of mankind. Our forestry is a potential repository of valuable genetic plant resources that are sitting targets for industrial espionage, examples, balata, lemon grass, bois bande. They constitute a missing market of public goods that needs government intervention for protection if we are to capitalise on their economic benefits.
Our 1973 Constitution makes provision for protection of intellectual property and Grenada is signatory to several bilateral and multilateral treaties and conventions. Under the Patents Act we have bilateral agreements with the United Kingdom and United States. We are party to CBD Conventions on Biodiversity recognising sovereign rights of States over their genetic resources that require “prior informed consent” for access.
We accord with WTO/TRIPS Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and are signatory to the Paris and Berne Conventions under WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
However, treaties and conventions won’t save us in the hostile multilateral environment of obfuscation and double standards.
Grenada remains open and vulnerable to rogue transnationals searching for new genetic discoveries. A 2010 WTO trade review revealed that our IP legislations are out-of-date badly in need of amendment because we lag far behind in meeting TRIPS standards.
This was confirmed by the U.S. 2011 Bureau of Economic Affairs report. And biotechnologist Dr. Malachy Dottin found lack of gene banks, databases, and resource mapping information systems of our plant genetic resources.
Patent regimes were created by industrialised countries with asymmetries and biases for the protection of industrialised countries while ignoring the legitimate rights of Third World countries.
It is bioimperialism and to beat them at their own game in any multilateral patent litigation forum we have to evolve as their laws evolve.
Our priorities should be (i) lobbying WIPO to resolve existing legal anomalies (ii) strengthening our legal and institutional framework (iii) researching and publishing findings in academic journals and (iv) creating a genetic resources registration system.
To continue lagging further and further behind is reckless negligence.