Commission encourages international solidarity when utilizing exotic plants

January 8, 2004

Brussels, 7 January 2004

When an EU company uses exotic plants like Aloe Vera for producing cosmetics it should share the benefits of this use with the country where the plant came from. This is the key message in a Communication just adopted by the European Commission. The use of exotic plants like Aloe Vera, Ginseng, Green Tea, Jojoba Oil, etc is widespread in the EU, particularly in cosmetics.

Several industry sectors are investing in research to discover new applications for such so called "genetic resources" in medicines, cosmetics or agriculture. The Communication urges companies and research institutes not to take genetic resources from other countries - usually developing countries that are rich in bio-diversity - without their consent.

European companies and research institutes should guarantee that the countries of origin get a fair share of the profits and research results arising from the use of their resources.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said: "This is an issue of equity and fairness. The EU wants the developing countries to have a fair and equitable share of the benefits arising from the use of so-called genetic resources. The Commission wants to ensure that companies and research institutes act responsibly and share these gains with developing countries. If these countries use the benefits to protect bio-diversity and foster nature conservation, this could provide a win-win situation for trade and for the environment".

By its action, the EU is taking the lead among industrialised countries in responding to developing countries' requests for efforts to share the benefits which come from using their resources. The initiative is in accordance with the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Bonn Guidelines on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) adopted under the Convention in 2002.

What are genetic resources?

Genetic resources are materials of plant, animal or microbial origin. They are usually found in the southern hemisphere, mostly Latin America, south-east Asia, Oceania and Africa. They are of fundamental importance to many areas of scientific research, like plant breeding for agriculture and horticulture, and for a wide range of industrial sectors, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, medicine, and cosmetics. For example, various plants have cosmetic applications: cinnamon has essential oils with antiseptic properties, green tea has a free radical scavenging property and horse chestnut is an astringent. Also it is claimed that some of the top-selling botanical medicines have special properties such as increasing energy (ginseng), combating anxiety (kava) or treating wounds and skin problems (aloe vera).

Many European firms already make wide use of these plants and some make major investments in order to discover possible new applications for genetic resources.

Commission proposals

The Communication on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing strongly encourages companies and research institutions to use standard agreements with the providers of genetic resources when they seek access to them. These agreements should set out terms and conditions under which genetic resources could be accessed and used and how the benefits from their use should be shared with the providers. Providers of genetic resources may be governments, local authorities, land owners, indigenous peoples and local populations. All users of genetic resources are also encouraged to develop their own codes of conduct as a means of respecting the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In addition, the Commission envisages taking a series of measures, such as:

    Awareness raising
Different measures which could raise users' awareness of their obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. These include the creation of a European network to provide immediate access to information on existing laws at international, European and national level on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS).
    Intellectual property rights in the EU
The Communication opens the debate on the introduction into EU law of a requirement for patent applicants to reveal where they got their genetic resources from and if they made use of the 'traditional knowledge' of indigenous peoples or local populations.
    Action in international fora
The Communication also stresses the need for fully co-ordinated EU action within all international fora dealing with the different aspects of ABS, such as bio-diversity, agriculture, trade and intellectual property. This would provide a consistent international regime governing ABS.

Next steps

The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have been invited to give their views on the different proposals made. The Commission has already started working on a number of initiatives, such as awareness raising. In 2004, the Commission will also consult civil society before deciding the way forward on these proposals.

Further information and the text of the Communication can be found on the EC Biodiversity Clearing House at:

http://biodiversity-chm.eea.eu.int/information/F1046684686/F1058442682 .

Further information on the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Bonn Guidelines:

http://www.biodiv.org/

DN: IP/04/21 Date: 07/01/2004

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