EU tables plan to the WTO to help developing countries reap benefits from 'green gold' used in biotech inventions

September 18, 2002

Brussels, 17 September 2002

The European Union has tabled a plan to the WTO to help developing countries rich in biological resources to reap benefits from biotech inventions that make use of their bio-resources. The plan is set out in a concept paper to the Council for Trade-related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which meets at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva on 17-18 September. The Council's work is part of the Doha Development Agenda. The EU's new plan stresses the compatibility between the TRIPS agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, thus addressing a major concern for developing countries the commercial exploitation of bio-resources. Welcoming the initiative, Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said: 'Many complex eco-systems could be mines of 'green gold' -- medicines, new crop varieties and other benefits for the entire world. It's only fair that the countries with such resources benefit from their exploitation. With today's move the EU reaffirms its commitment to put development at the heart of the on-going WTO negotiations' As well as new drugs from plants known locally through traditional knowledge, disease-resistant or hardy crops are examples of the kind of resources that might be made available through patented applications.

The EU's concept paper explores the relationship between the TRIPS agreement, which enables biotech inventions to be patented, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is concerned with conserving biodiversity and its sustainable use. The CBD also recognises' the states' sovereign rights over their biological resources and a right to equitably share the benefits from utilisation of these resources.

Developing countries are concerned that the TRIPS agreement does not encourage those seeking patents over biotech inventions to respect the basis principles of the CBD, i.e. obtain a permission from the source countries of bio-material used in inventions and share the benefits with the country of origin. They argue that the absence of information on the geographical origin of bio-material used in inventions makes it difficult for them to keep track of the commercial use of these resources or to check whether bio-prospectors have respected the principles of the CBD.

The EU's paper argues that TRIPS and the CBD, far from being in conflict, are compatible and can mutually reinforce each other. The key proposal in the paper is a means of obliging applicants for patents who have used the fruits of bio-prospecting for new products, to disclose the geographical origin of any biological material used in biotech inventions. At present, there is no such obligation.

The EU has little direct interest in the issue, as the raw material concerned is mostly concentrated in rain forests and other habitats still being explored for potent genetic resources.

However, it has taken up the question with the aim of brokering a fair deal in the Doha Development Agenda for countries which want an interface between the TRIPs Agreement and the CBD.

The EC Communication also addresses other related issues. It subscribes to the need to provide better protection to traditional knowledge and recognises the right of subsistence farmers in developing countries to re-use and exchange seeds, even if these seeds are covered by intellectual property rights.

Background information

EC Communication to the TRIPS Council on the review of Article .3(b) of the TRIPS Agreement; the relationship between the TRIPS Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity and the protection of traditional knowledge and folklore, September 2002.

DN: IP/02/1316 Date: 17/09/2002

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