The Yomiuri Shimbun Earth’s bountiful ecosystems offer human society a diversity of riches. The preciousness of biodiversity should be recognized once again on the occasion of Japan’s ratification of the Nagoya Protocol.
The Japanese government has ratified the Nagoya Protocol, a set of international rules adopted in Nagoya in 2010 at the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.
Useful constituents produced by the genetic actions of plants and microorganisms have been widely applied in the production of medicines, cosmetics and foodstuffs for many years. The protocol stipulates that benefits arising from products utilizing genetic resources should be fairly distributed.
A typical example of such beneficial distribution is research conducted by Satoshi Omura, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015. From bacteria Omura found in a soil sample in Japan, a U.S. pharmaceutical company — with which he had conducted joint research — developed a medicine effective against parasitic diseases, netting him about ¥25 billion in patent fees.
Problems have arisen when companies in industrialized countries have utilized biological genetic resources such as plants that grow naturally in developing countries.
There have been many incidents in which companies collected specimens such as medicinal herbs in developing countries without obtaining consent and utilized them in the development of products. There has been deep-rooted discontent in developing countries when this has occurred because the benefits from the application of such genetic resources have not been shared.
Rules appropriate for both the resource-providing country and the resource-utilizing country are needed for the sustainable utilization of wealth-generating genetic resources. Fairly sharing benefits is vital to avoiding conflicts between both sides.
Guidelines require flexibility
Companies, universities and other organizations that want to conduct research and development on genetic resources will have to exchange a contract with host countries to establish how the benefits that arise will be distributed. A report outlining the deal will also need to be submitted to the government of the research organization’s home country. This is an overall framework of the Nagoya Protocol. The protocol came into effect in 2014 and has already been ratified by about 100 countries.
Each country independently stipulates such matters as: the scope of genetic resources to be covered, the contents of reports to be submitted to the government, and the presence or absence of penalties for violations. Japan aimed to ratify the protocol by 2015 but failed due to delays in the creation of domestic guidelines.
Researchers and companies in Japan, averse to the complication of procedures, called for looser provisions. As a result, the guidelines have been left with no binding power.
This could be considered an appropriate response from the viewpoint of promoting unrestrained research and development. The guidelines should be reviewed flexibly by carefully discerning the situations in other countries.
The University of Tsukuba concluded a contract on the basis of the protocol with Mexico in March. Under the contract, the university conducts joint research on chayote, a plant native to Central America, to improve its cultivation.
The joint research prioritizes the preservation of local ecosystems and is aimed at sharing the benefits with local farmers in Mexico. One of the research themes is to establish a benefit-sharing methodology.
Joint research with developing countries is an effective tool for Japan to contribute to the international community. Japan should actively make such efforts.