Biopiracy, or the cultural appropriation of scientific knowledge

In my last post, I talked about how one can distinguish cultural appropriation from equitable cultural exchange, or cultural syncretism. Generally, when thinking along these terms, we usually think of art, food, music and fashion as culturally appropriated artifacts.

But what about cultural appropriation of knowledge or intellectual property? How do we even recognize it when we it happens?

First, let’s preface with this.

This video touches on a lot of things that bother me about cultural appropriation broadly, with respect to lifestyle, the pastiches of eastern religious beliefs in a “postcolonial condescending way”, but most notably for our concerns now, it talks about how whenever something termed as “alternative medicine” has been proven to work we just come to know it as medicine. We can then perhaps patent it, mass produce it and make it widely available for all to use. Granted, the scientific rigor that is at least in theory behind a drug being approved for mass manufacturing and sale is something that one can stand by, it is difficult to stay naive to the history and idiosyncrasies of intellectual property issues in the scientific and industrial community.

Biopiracy refers to the process of discovering and commercializing products based on biological resources, often borrowed from traditional and indigenous knowledge of less advantaged communities, without compensation or recognition of their cultural origins. Due to the commericialization and marketing of these products, we may have a vague notion of the natural roots of them (See: Greenwashing), however, the branding of these products masks the appropriated aspect and as such, biopiracy can be very hard to recognize unlike other more explicit forms of cultural appropriation.

The insidious nature of biopiracy does more than just have an economic impact on the groups of people from whom the knowledge is plundered. It is, pushed to its logical extreme, a form of intellectual theft and thus not only takes away the potential for monetary profit, but also undermines the intellectual heritages of groups, thereby perpetuating stereotypical views about the scientific poverty of the so-called less-developed nations.

The neem is a tree native to South Asia whose medicinal property has been known to locals for thousands of years. Yet, in 1995, the US Department of Agriculture, in coalition with a pharmaceutical research firm patented a technique to derive an anti-fungal agent from the neem. After a lot of kerfuffle, the patent was overturned in 2005.

However, the pharmaceutical industry challeged this overturning with the argument that the traditional knowledge could not considered prior art as it had never been published in the context of modern western convention of scientific publishing – a view one would consider discriminatory, in the context that in most countries, prior art is considered anything that is public knowledge – including those within the realm of written and oral traditions.

There are other countless examples of biopiracy, such as the debacles concerning the basmati rice, enola bean, hoodia and many, many more.

In a world that is way more focused on information sharing across disciplines and borders, one begins to question whether biopiracy would indeed be an issue if it was not for the nature of patent laws and related royalty systems associated with scientific knowledge. In its present state, much of patent law would give monopoly over the potentially biopirated knowledge to specific entities, even though it may be old news for many other people.  This falls under a broader debate with regards to intellectual property laws and copyrights. However, one thing we can probably agree on regardless of our stances on the legal complexities, is the damaging effect of the intellectual fraud and plundering. The question remains, what framework of ethics should be in place to hold persons and organizations accountable for claiming a “discovery”? Are societies pre-emptively supposed to protect themselves against biopiracy by having their traditional knowledge recorded in a manner by Western science, or is that simply perpetuating a problematic worldview?

Comments and feedback, as always, are appreciated.


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