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 Symposium on Biodiversity, Biotechnology
and Sustainable Development
By
Miguel Rojas and Walter Jaffé
 
 
 
Keywords:  Biodiversity prospecting; Access to genetic resources; Grass root technologies; Policies/Programmes.
Correct citation: Rojas, M. and Jaffé, W. (1994), "Symposium on Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Sustainable Development." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No.19, p.21-22.

How to evaluate biodiversity, and how to develop institutional models in order to take advantage of biodiversity as a way to foster economic development? These were the main topics discussed on a symposium on biodiversity, biotechnology and sustainable development, held in Costa Rica.

Companies and institutes currently use four different bioprospecting models: the Costa Rican Institute for Biodiversity (INBio) model; the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) model; the Washington­based company Andes Pharmaceutical's model; and the model of the joint bioprospecting project of the US agencies National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) (see also Monitor no. 15). Notwithstanding the diversity in existing models, great difficulties are attached in linking development and biodiversity.

The value of biodiversity
According to Walter Jaffé (IICA), biodiversity cannot be regarded as green petroleum for developing countries. It offers these countries interesting possibilities for introducing new biotechnologies and investments from the North, but it will have limited economical impact. Expectations on biodiversity should be realistic about possible future incomes and the required efforts to benefit from it. Substantial and sophisticated scientific and technological resources are needed. The Cuban scientist Agustin Lage added that "this window of opportunity will not be there for much time. Unless developing countries rapidly create capacities to take advantage of these resources soon, corporations from the North will do it instead." He also pointed out that the approach to the development of new drugs will increasingly shift from the screening of natural products to rational drug design, based on basic research advances in the understanding of the molecular basis of the biological activity of compounds. Lage stated that unless developing countries advance in conceptualizing and managing this issue, they will miss the opportunity offered them of gaining access to the 'state­of­the art' technologies that biodiversity gives.
The value of biodiversity depends very much on its end use. For example, the development of pharmaceuticals is characterized by a high level of uncertainty. As a consequence, the risk of achieving a final result of the bioprospecting effort is high. Anthony Artuso (Cornell University, USA) presented a sophisticated model for systematically incorporating quantitative estimates of this risk into the decision making process for the development of drugs from natural sources. In the case of biodiversity for agriculture, where the interest is much more directed towards diversity within one species, than between different species, its value can be estimated by using standard economic techniques.
 
The symposium facts

The symposium on biodiversity, biotechnology and sustainable development was organized by the Pan­American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Inter­American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). IICA and PAHO are part of the Inter­American System, which comprises several specialized regional co­operation agencies. The symposium gathered representatives of the different biodiversity prospecting models for pharmaceutical and agricultural purposes, environmentalists and researchers from pharmaceutical companies. It was held at IICAheadquarters, San Jose, Costa Rica, April 12­14, 1994.
Rather than formulating recommendations or policy options, the symposium produced a map of positions, issues and warnings with respect to the development opportunities of biodiversity for developing countries.

For more information:
Dr. Julie Feinsilver
Division of Health and Development
Program of Research and Technological Development in Health
Pan American Health Organization
525, 23rd Street
N.W. Washington, D.C. 
20037/2895, USA
Fax: (+202) 861 8472

Requirements for competitiveness in bioprospecting
Ana Sittenfeld (INBio, Costa Rica) pointed out that new proprietary screening technologies have emerged since the mid 1980s. They are a merger of biotechnology and robotics and permit between 10 and 20 thousand screenings per week. She stated that it is necessary to offer something more than raw material to stay in the business. Developing countries, for example, should have the capacity to know where exactly the plants are in order to permit the supply of the same genetic material one year later, if needed.
Ownership of biodiversity is not an advantage in itself. Costa Rica, for instance, has great biodiversity, but only 20 per cent of it is endemic to the country. If a certain compound in a plant is found, there could be other plants that contain this compound, or the same plant could be found in neighbouring countries. Additional research, for instance, on domestication of the plants or on extraction processes of the compound should be done.
Most participants regarded the setting of an adequate legal framework defining property rights on biodiversity as an important step. The Convention on Biological Diversity is seen as establishing the basic definitions needed for this task.

Capacity building and infrastructure
The use and conservation of biodiversity requires scientific and technological capabilities. Developing these capabilities was seen as a priority for government intervention in developing countries. But heavy fiscal and budgetary constraints are deeply affecting the Latin American science community, which is to a larger extent funded by the government than in industrialized countries. In the case of Costa Rica, the development of a highly­qualified research base in biology has played a major role in the more recent efforts towards conservation and use of biodiversity. Several decades ago a system of national parks was created, as well as good national and international communication systems. The existence of this infrastructure helps to understand the achievements of INBio. Its creation has been critical for Costa Rica to have a negotiation capacity to take advantage of biodiversity and to fund its preservation. This model, however, can not be easily replicated since it is specific to Costa Rica's political and scientific characteristics.

The options for biodiversity­rich developing countries
The participants agreed on the danger of adopting standardized institutional models on how to take advantage of biodiversity. It was stated that every country should take into account its development of infrastructure, human resources and political system.
In the case of bioprospecting, a primary starting point is the recognition that the pharmaceutical industry is heavily concentrated. R&D, manufacturing and marketing is controlled by a group of approximately 20 transnational companies. Nevertheless, there are important opportunities for biodiversity­rich developing countries to harness their biological resources for the development of a pharmaceutical industry. According to Robert Evenson, pharmaceutical companies are interested in the major markets. There are also important smaller markets, mostly for tropical diseases, that do not receive the companies' attention and that offer opportunities for Latin American firms.
Higher value­added materials could be exported by shifting from simple export of plants or their extracts, to the export of active compounds and associated chemical and molecular information. According to some participants, this kind of research does not require costly technologies, but only highly­trained personnel. Edgar Asebey (Andes Pharmaceutical), estimated that plant compounds identified through conventional screening cannot be rewarded with more than 1 to 3 per cent of the final value in royalties, if they eventually reach the market in the form of a pharmaceutical product. In his opinion, Latin American countries have qualified scientists to transform these natural products and gain as much as 20­40 per cent.
Participants also envisaged Latin American R&D and production consortia as a way to apply biodiversity to the development of pharmaceutical and agricultural products. The scarce human and capital resources must be pooled in order to respond to specific health and agricultural problems.
 
New process for ethanol production

A number of developing countries produce ethanol as a petrol substitute, but the current production methods leave a lot to desire. At the Imperial College (London, UK), genetically engineered bacteria have been developed to facilitate the production of ethanol from various sources such as corn cobs and straw. This new bacteria, Bacillus stearothermophilus has two advantageous characteristics the commonly used yeast misses. The bacteria are able to convert also the plant sugars, the so­called hemicelluloses, into ethanol. Since hemicelluloses accounts for one­third of the weight of a plant, this new method results in less waste.
Moreover, the bacteria are able to generate sufficient heat to keep the fermenter warm enough to vaporise the ethanol produced. It can easily be drawn out of the vessel with a vacuum and be condensed. This is an advantage compared to the yeast method, which requires to break­off the process, extract the ethanol out of the yeast cells and purify it.

Source: New Scientist, 2 April 1994, p.17.

Local knowledge on biological resources
The practical value of local knowledge for increasing the 'hit' rate in the screening of biological materials was debated. The new screening technologies seem to reduce this value considerably. The right of indigenous or local people to a fair compensation for preserving and generating knowledge on biodiversity was not questioned, although no easy and straight forward ways to implement this compensation exist.

The financial resources generated by the use of biodiversity will never be more than a small fraction of the funds needed to preserve it. Unless the government and the civil society develop an environmentally friendly development approach, there is not much that bioprospecting can do by itself to slow down for example the loss of the world's genetic diversity's. According to Ana Sittenfeld, a sizeable proportion of INBio's income goes to supporting conservation efforts of the Costa Rican government. But this contribution is considered very limited compared to the needs. If adequate macro­policies are not devised and enforced to protect the forests, they will be lost very soon. Edgar Asebey agreed with this view: "Would­be tree­cutters must have alternative options to encourage them to preserve the forests. Bioprospecting has the potential to help, but not alone. New policies must be set up to guarantee conservation."
Miguel Rojas/Walter Jaffé (IICA)



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