You are going to read a New Scientist article written by Fred Pearce. For each question, choose the answer(s) which you think fits best according to the text.

The world’s poor countries have struck a deal that will let them make money from drugs and other products synthesised from indigenous plants. But leading environmentalists have condemned the agreement. One calls it a plan “to privatise the genetic commons”.

Ten years ago, 160 nations signed the Biodiversity Convention. It said tropical countries with rich biological resources should be able to charge companies for “bio-prospecting” for either drugs or genetic information that could lead to new products. But it didn’t specify how. 

Last week, signatories to the convention meeting in The Hague finally agreed on the Bonn Guidelines on Access and Benefit Sharing. These specify how each country should frame licences to allow companies to access these natural resources. British environment minister Michael Meacher hailed the deal as a breakthrough allowing countries to share in the profits of new gene-based products. However, the guidelines are voluntary, disappointing African nations and others who wanted legally binding rules. Patrick Mulvany of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, based in Britain, said: “It is a first step, but the convention should be providing a legally binding formula to control this trade. Because they are voluntary, these rules will be very weak if they conflict with those of the World Trade Organisation.”

But others oppose the arrangements on principle. Jeremy Rifkin, who campaigns against genetically modified crops, called the guidelines “illegitimate”. Rifkin, who heads an organisation called the Foundation on Economic Trends based in Washington DC, says they “will allow countries to sell monopoly rights to the world’s genetic commons. Nobody has a right to enter into exclusive deals over the products of millions of years of evolution.”

Sold for Pennies
Since the convention in 1993, countries such as the Philippines and Brazil have been criticised for virtually banning scientists from prospecting for genes on their territory. While others, such as Costa Rica, have signed deals allowing pharmaceutical companies to search their forests for plants that might provide cancer treatments.

Tropical countries were over-excited at the prospect of genetic EI Dorado, he says, adding “We now know that most genes are widely shared among different species. They are not exactly scarce. So developing countries are only ever going to be able to sell them for pennies,” he told New Scientist. “But these guidelines will legitimise corporate rights to control the products of those genes, and charge very high prices at the other end of the line. Far from outlawing the biopirates, this is biopiracy by other means,” he says.


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