Just for information, the NP has yet to be ratified by the U.S. as a binding treaty; not likely to happen anytime soon.
What is the NP about?
The NP is an agreement/ treaty to prevent “Biopiracy” (BP). Probably, you haven’t heard of either the NP or BP before? Well, perhaps you have suffered from a bout of the “Flu” at some time? If you do deny that as well, please stop reading any further here; all others, kindly read on.
For my dear readers that are unfamiliar with modern medicinal developments, there are still many organisms (especially plants and also marine organisms) that have barely been studied as to their “chemistry.” In order to survive as a species, these organisms have evolved, adapted, and adopted a variety of biological and chemical defense methods.
Biological Defense Methods
No doubt, you’ll know that some plants sprout early in spring after a long and cold winter and develop seeds or shoots that are fully functional before their numerous competitors even awake from their seasonal slumber. Other plants use just the opposite technique; they are not generating seeds or spores to ripen until early fall. Of course, most plants use the main growing season to advance their seeds’ distribution system and hopes for their progeny.
You may also recognize that some plants create millions of seeds or fertilizing pollen (just think of pine pollen lining many lakes with a yellow band each spring) in the expectation of only a small number of descendants carrying on their genes to have the species survive. Other plants put a significant amount of energy into each of only a few seeds (for example, think walnut trees), hoping that the extra nutrient and comparatively large seeds will keep the species going. Some of those fruits even need a good frost period to ripen or be ready to germinate in the following growth season.
Without any major disruptive element, all such biological methods will lead to success. After all, they have already been honed to perfection and proven successful for many millennia. But many species have additional defenses and methods to improve chances of survival, like chemical defense systems.
Chemical Defense Methods
Chemical defense methods are even more varied and intriguing than the biological propagation principles. You’ll know of various highly effective venoms in spiders, insects, snakes, rain-forest frog skins, ocean jellyfish type creatures (e.g., the Portuguese Man-o-War), and the like. What may be surprising is the fact that many “benign” organisms have similarly effective chemical defenses, though many are less obvious, yet some are quite odorous, like the squirts of a skunk.
Just think of some of the chemicals you may have heard of at one time or another, like curare, the rapidly-acting paralyzing toxin from Strychncos spp. plants found in the rain-forests of the Amazon, or the poisonous spines of the lion fish, Pterois spp., found in most tropical seas, and the many other nasty effects one may get just from touching one of those creatures. Oh yes, many of these organisms are really awe-inspiring to look at—though awful if experienced too close.Even many of the beautiful garden flowers blooming in summer have their chemical weaponry to defend against being eaten alive by insects and other visitors to your garden. Then there are the many native as well as introduced species that want to take over that realm. They all deploy various biological and chemical means to defend against predation and to advance the likelihood of their seeds to survive and pass on their genes.
Now, let’s get back to the Biopiracy (BP) issue and the Nagoya Protocol. At the heart of that are the “Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity.” As is often the case with such grandiose sounding proclamations, the critical questions remain unanswered.
The questions are: What is “Fair and Equitable Sharing” and what constitutes “Biopiracy?”
The term “piracy” may conjure visions of swash-buckling pirates of centuries past. They are not the issue here but rather the often sophisticated methods to obtain organisms from remote places and to try to propagate them in other parts of the world, either for study or commerce. The potato and corn (maize) plants are just two important examples. Without their (intended) introductions to Europe, centuries ago, Europe, as it is known today most likely would not exist.
Of course, such “piracies” often affect the country of origin, not necessarily to its detriment. Are the Americas any poorer for having their potato tubers “pirated” centuries ago? Is China any worse off when people affected by malaria use treatment with modern medicines based on artemisinin, a product derived from natural chemicals in the plant Artemisia annua, a herb employed in Chinese traditional medicine?
Modern BP is not just happening with rare plants or critters dwelling in an ecological niche in some remote area. Instead, “BP,” combined with modern gene-analysis and gene-splicing techniques, also involves some “grave-robbing.” For example, the skeletal remains of people who are likely to have succumbed to the dreaded “Black Death” disease (possibly caused by the Ebola virus) or other pandemics that ravaged entire countries and even continents, some centuries ago, are now being unearthed and studied. Modern science is attempting to learn from such remains potential clues that may help to advance human health in today’s world.
Another example demonstrating today’s technological advances was shown quite recently. The analysis of one tooth (from each) allowed the determination of the genetic makeup and biological relationship of ancient mummies, as was shown quite recently.
Consequently, in my mind, there is no such thing as Biopiracy if it applies to methods of developing powerful new drugs to prevent or cure diseases, introduction and improvements of food plants, and increasing longevity for the benefit of all mankind.
In Other Words
So far, the Nagoya Protocol has had not much success in preventing “Biopiracy” and most likely it never will.
The real task should not be to prevent “Biopiracy” but to foster its inherent benefits for you and everyone else—and that requires some clear definitions and thinking.