Biodiversity still valuable for medicines

Nature is still supplying more than two-thirds of all “new chemical entities” that end up approved as drugs, according to the third in a long-term series of studies by David Newman and Gordon Cragg. Their scientific study of drugs introduced between 1981 and mid 2006 is online here. The study also reveals that 2004 saw the lowest number of new drugs introduced since 1981. According to New Scientist magazine, which reports on the study:

“The dip was due in part to the international Convention on Biodiversity rules covering exploitation of natural resources, says Danna Leaman of the World Conservation Union’s medicinal plant specialist group. She says that the Convention, signed in 1992, has increased the bureaucracy and cost of getting people into the field to collect plants for drug discovery.”

The scientists and reporters conclude that diversity is a vital and extremely valuable resource in the search for blockbuster drugs. And so it is.

My real problem with this whole approach is that it fails to disentangle agricultural biodiversity, and as a result countries think that their agricultural diversity is going to produce the same pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. But while drug companies may discover their billion-dollar blockbusters in plants (and occasionally animals) they don’t harvest them directly. They mimic and alter the drugs and find ways to make them under their control. Agriculture is not like that. Genetic resources find their way into new varieties and breeds, which are then commercialized. But the amounts involved are nothing like those in the pharmaceutical world, and yet that’s the backdrop against which people discuss agricultural bio-piracy. Here’s hoping that the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture does indeed ease access and share benefits, as it is intended to do, and that the flow of genetic material starts up again in earnest.

While we’re on the subject of lumping all biodiversity together, another academic study has produced a biodiversity map of the world. While a press release and a report or two mention ecosystem services, they don’t tell us to what extent the scientists examined either agricultural species or the genetic diversity within those species. And I have not yet been able to get to the scientific study to find out.

Visualizing data

Stop press: Google bought Gapminder yesterday. Thanks Patchwork Planet. Still no sign of any good Ag data though.

Google has started hosting Gapminder, a wonderful tool for visualizing development data developed by a Swedish NGO. Here’s an example of what you can do with it. Worth playing around with. But to see a master at work, check this out. There are only a few variables at the moment, but wouldn’t it be great if one day the data in FAOSTAT were to be added? Anyone want to volunteer to do the mash-up?

Accessing biodiversity in Brazil

Brazil has new procedures in place (called Sisbio) to issue licences to collect biodiversity for teaching and research, according to an article on SciDevNet. They are supposed to make the whole access system much easier to navigate. And faster: what used to take up to two years should now take 45 days at most. This bit struck me in particular:

Scientists will eventually be able to use Sisbio to access satellite images of potential research areas and gauge research activity in areas so they can better plan their research.

Diversity and deep thoughts

We don’t normally go in much for philosophizing here, because by and large that’s something that I, at any rate, feel is best left to those with the time and inclination to think deep thoughts. However, there’s an interesting little spat brewing over in the further reaches of the blogosphere at Y Safle (which labels itself “pretentious waffle from Wales”). At issue is whether environmentalism and international development work against each other. One of the commenters seems to have got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick. I won’t attempt to summarize the arguments, which seem to hinge on exactly how one lets market forces operate, but if you’ve a moment or two, why not take a look?

How to halt desertification

IRD in France has released the results of a long study of the Jeffara region of Tunisia, which has been very prone to desertification. The study pinpoints the role of agriculture and the use of natural resources as key factors in the spread of deserts, but acknowledges the very complex interactions at work. The press release concludes:

“[D]egradation can be checked by prohibiting the development of endangered natural environments for cultivation. However, real practical alternatives must in that case be proposed to farmers, in the agriculture sector, through maintenance of a certain diversified production in their holdings and enhancing commercial value of high-quality local or regional produce, but also by means of diversification of activities and of sources of revenue other than farming. This diversification would offer people improved flexibility to face up to climatic and economic hazards and enable them to manage better their families’ financial resources. In addition, the effort government has made in water management, through the CES, could be enhanced by schemes for desalinating brackish water and recycling waste water.”

But can they find a way to diversify and add value before the farmlands, soils and water have vanished completely?