A watered-down capitulation

Who should benefit from biotechnology? The South, where the genes originate, or the North, with its massive gene banks? Commercial interests carried the day

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

RIO ESTABLISHED that the fight over biodiversity is intensely commercial. Worried about its billion-dollar biotechnology industry, the US refused to sign the biodiversity convention which, by the end of the conference, had been signed by over 150 countries. And it rejected the southern demand for a legally-binding code of conduct to regulate the safety of the biotechnology industry worldwide.

In an obvious case of double standards, William Reilly, head of the US delegation, explained his country's stand, "We hoped that the biodiversity convention would be restricted to rules for better forest management. Instead, negotiators touched on the financing mechanism and the issue of intellectual property rights." Saving pretty plants was a sound objective, but paying for those plants -- as the developing countries are insisting upon -- was unsound as it would hurt the growth of an industry it leads the world in.

Finally, the US agreed to a watered-down and non-legally binding version of the biodiversity convention in Agenda 21. While the biodiversity convention incorporates some -- according to many, still inadequate -- steps to make northern access to the Third World's genetic resources dependent on royalties and transfer of technologies, Agenda 21 mostly concerns the conservation of biodiversity.

The problem lies with who should have a share in the benefits of biotechnology advances. Countries like Peru and Colombia, which gave the world the potato, among many other foods, wanted these benefits to be shared with the countries where the genetic material first originated. But other developing countries, fearing conflicting claims, suggested "countries providing genetic resources".

The North insisted that this term would explicitly include its massive gene collections. The enormous southern genetic wealth was, thus, equated with the free and often forcibly acquired genetic resources stored in northern gene banks. But as this had been also agreed earlier under the biodiversity convention, the South had little to say.

Another contentious issue revolved around the safety of the biotechnology industry. The South proposed the development of a set of principles which could become the basis for a legal instrument on safety procedures. But the North, particularly the US, rejected this outright. The compromise was to agree on the development of principles, but not a legally-binding code of conduct.

The toughest negotiations were on the question of who will pay for damages that may arise out of biotechnology. Developing countries, burnt by Bhopal-type disasters, wanted an international regime of liability and compensation. But this was not acceptable and a weasel sentence, calling for the need "to consider for and the feasibility of guidelines" which could facilitate such national legislation, was adopted. Obviously, global intervention, if it is not in the hands of the rich and powerful, is a definite 'no'.

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