Wed Mar 3, 2010
OSLO (Reuters) - A bug-sized version of biological warfare that can protect crops such as coffee or mangoes may be aided by new rules meant to be agreed in 2010 under a U.N. treaty for safeguarding nature, experts say.
Some countries may be denying others access to a potential tiny army of parasites or other creatures able to control farm pests because of the current lack of U.N. rules on "access and benefit sharing" of biodiversity.
Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the Secretariat of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, told Reuters he was fairly confident that agreement will be reached on new rules at a U.N. conference set for Japan in October,
Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the Secretariat of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, told Reuters.
Agreement would help pharmaceutical companies, for instance, by laying out more clearly how they can get access to plants in the Amazon rainforest. It might aid indigenous peoples by setting guidelines for sharing revenues, for instance, from any drugs developed from plants or animals on their lands.
Djoghlaf said the value of genetic resources was dampened by high costs and the long time needed to develop products, as well as by the lack of clarity about access and benefit sharing.
In the insect-scale version of the problem, the arrival in 2003 of a fruit fly in Kenya -- probably from Sri Lanka -- has hit African mango crops and undermined exports to Europe worth $42 million a year.
The fly has flourished partly as it has no natural enemies in Africa. Insect experts visited Sri Lanka -- mangoes originate in the region -- and found a tiny parasitoid wasp that lays eggs in the fly larvae and so keeps the pests in check.
"We didn't get the permit" to export the wasp, said Fabian Haas, head of the Biosystematics Support Unit at the Kenya-based International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology.
"It's looking very much as if this discussion on access and benefit sharing was the reason," he said.
An alternative parasite has now been identified from Hawaii -- but better rules would ease cooperation.
By allowing exports, Sri Lanka might benefit, for instance, from scientific research grants to help understand mango parasites. Under new rules it could not expect a share of any higher mango earnings if the fruit fly is controlled.
Until now, companies have unilaterally negotiated with developing world governments -- among many deals, Danish Novozymes has an accord with the Kenyan Wildlife Service to explore microbial diversity.
Most countries have an interest in allowing access to biodiversity, even for rival producers, because their own crops may be the next to suffer and need help, Haas said.
Showing that interdependence, South American coffee growers have benefited from parasites from Ethiopia -- from where coffee originally came. And cassava growers in Africa have also used parasites introduced from South America, cassava's home.
One study estimated a parasitoid wasp introduced to Africa from Paraguay in the 1970s that preyed on a mealybug wrecking cassava crops gave benefits of $4.5 billion for $27 million.
"Benefits go to the smallholder cassava farmers who produce more crops, save spraying and have less losses. There is no mechanism to collect anything from these farmers," Haas said.
And controls can go wrong, meaning that any attempted system of payments could backfire. The cane toad was brought to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to control a beetle damaging sugar cane. But the toad is poisonous and kills native wildlife.