“The cusp of a landmark agreement”: UN puts new focus on tackling ‘biopiracy’

By Kirsty Doolan

- Last updated on GMT

The resources being discussed include medicinal plants and agricultural crops used in various products including cosmetics, medicines, food supplements, seeds and biotechnology
The resources being discussed include medicinal plants and agricultural crops used in various products including cosmetics, medicines, food supplements, seeds and biotechnology

Related tags United nations Biodiversity Environment Intellectual property circular beauty

After more than two decades of discussions, the UN organisation WIPO plans to finalise an international agreement to target ‘biopiracy’ later this month.

Between 13 – 24 May, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) – a Geneva-based, United Nations agency that monitors intellectual property and innovation – will begin negotiations to find an agreement based on an international treaty to prevent 'biopiracy'.

Biopiracy is the use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge without any agreement on the part of those who hold them, and without them receiving any specific benefit. These resources includes medicinal plants and agricultural crops that can be used to create various products, including cosmetics, medicines, food supplements, seeds and biotechnology.

Numerous developing countries are worried that patents are being granted to businesses from other parts of the world that either dismiss the rights of indigenous people, or have been issued for inventions that already exist, which is then provoking long legal battles for the original inventor.

WIPO’s proposed solution is to improve transparency in terms of the patenting of ‘traditional knowledge’ surrounding the genetic resources.

“Negotiations will not be easy”

In his opening speech, WIPO’s Director-General Daren Tang underlined the historic nature of the negotiations and said: “Let me be candid – negotiations will not be easy. Negotiations dealing with significant and important topics rarely are. But I call on all of you to marry passion with pragmatism, and channel the same spirit of flexibility, accommodation and consensus that has brought us now to the cusp of a truly landmark agreement.”

“At this Diplomatic Conference, we can show that there is no contradiction between a robust and predictable IP regime – one that incentivises innovation, attracts investments and drives game-changing research – and one that responds to the needs of all countries and their communities everywhere, including those from Indigenous Peoples as well as from Local Communities. A more inclusive and diverse IP system is not just a more dynamic IP system, it is a stronger IP system,” Tang continued.

A successful result would also deliver a much-needed boost to multilateralism,” he said. “Over the next two weeks, our responsibility is therefore not just to WIPO and the IP community, but also to a world whose eyes are upon us.”

The member states had already reached a breakthrough consensus in July 2022 to move their negotiations to the next level. This determined that a Diplomatic Conference should be held before the end of 2024 and that a "Basic Proposal​" would serve as the basis for negotiations.

What does the draft agreement say?

If agreed, patent applicants will have to disclose the country from which the genetic resources involved in the invention originated, as well as the indigenous people that provided the traditional knowledge.

This transparency will boost the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, which states that the/a person(s) that provide genetic resources and/or traditional knowledge ‘should’ benefit from the advantages arising from their use.

This will ensure the “efficacy, transparency and quality” of the patent system, says the WIPO.

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