Unconventional wisdom on biodiversity conventions

by Jeremy Cherfas on October 25, 2012

As the Convention on Biological Diversity catches its breath after the recent Conference of the Parties in Hyderabad, and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture lumbers towards the First Meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Advisory Committee on Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in a couple of weeks time, an onlooker could find himself suffering extreme policy fatigue.

The proper restorative is to take a look at Jim Chen’s forthcoming paper on Bioprospect Theory. This from the abstract:

Indeed, legal approaches to biodiversity and to biotechnology are so twisted that they represent an extreme application of prospect theory. Losing supposedly hurts worse than winning feels good. The law of biodiversity and biotechnology appears to reverse this presumption. Biodiversity loss is staggering and undeniable. Humans are responsible for the sixth great extinction spasm of the Phanerozoic Eon. By contrast, gains from bioprospecting are highly speculative. Even if they are ever realized, they will be extremely concentrated. There is no defensible basis for treating ethnobiological knowledge as the foundation of a coherent approach to global economic development.

In spite of these realities, the global community continues to spend its extremely small and fragile storehouse of political capital on this contentious corner of international environmental law. Global economic diplomacy should be made of saner stuff. The fact that it is not invites us to treat the entire charade as a distinct branch of behavioral law and economics: bioprospect theory.

I’m not alone in thinking that the pharmaceutical industry has a lot to answer for in the madness that is global policy on genetic resources, especially those for food and agriculture. But I also suspect there’s no other game in town.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Wood October 25, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Jeremy: I agree as to the `madness’: the recent COP meeting in Hyderabad has just started talking of a new multilateral system for ABS over biodiversity. How many more decades will that take to resolve?
But surely the blame for the crop genetic resource `contentious corner’, starting three decades ago, can be blamed on NGOs claiming that farmers’ crop genetic resources were being patented wholesale (an issue that became `biopiracy’). This was both not generally true and also not too important – 70% of crops in Latin America and Africa were sourced from other continents – a win-win scenario that depended on the free movement of genetic resources. If NGOs understood the importance of this past and ongoing movement they certainly did nothing to show it.

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Jim Chen October 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Thanks for posting this item on “Bioprospect Theory.” I very much appreciate your comments.

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