Genetic resources are receiving increasing attention internationally. Interest is focused on the potential of plants, animals and micro-organisms to develop new and useful products such as pharmaceuticals. ("Genetic resources" are defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity as "genetic material of actual or potential value" with "genetic material" defined as "any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity").
In New Zealand the process of accessing and utilising genetic resources to develop potentially useful products is referred to as bioprospecting or biodiscovery. The Ministry of Economic Development is responsible for domestic policy in this area. Further information on the domestic policy process can be found on the Ministry of Economic Development’s website.
At the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Nagoya, Japan, from 18-30 October 2010, the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of the Benefits Arising from their Utilization was finalised and adopted, marking the end of 6 years of negotiation. The Protocol, a supplementary treaty, aims to give effect to the third objective of the CBD, namely "the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources", as well as setting out rules governing access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.
New Zealand has been actively engaged in these negotiations and the delegation has comprised officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Economic Development and Te Puni Kokiri.
The New Zealand economy, particularly the agricultural, horticultural and forestry sectors, is highly dependent on foreign genetic resources (e.g. pastoral grasses, apples, dairy, kiwifruit, grapes, pinus radiata and biocontrol agents). New Zealand is also a biodiversity "hotspot" and there is domestic and international interest in accessing New Zealand’s genetic resources (e.g. native plants and micro-organisms) and, in some cases, the associated matauranga Maori or traditional knowledge, for research and other purposes including commercialisation.
The Protocol is as much an economic as an environmental agreement and has implications for countries, organisations and individuals worldwide that are involved in research and development using foreign genetic resources, be it for commercial or non-commercial purposes. The Protocol also has implications for countries like New Zealand with indigenous communities when their genetic resources and/or traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources are accessed and utilised.
New Zealand sought a practical and effective set of rules that: balanced the interests of both users and providers of genetic resources; gave appropriate recognition to the relationship between "access and benefit-sharing" activities and matauranga Maori; maintained the Crown’s ability to meet its obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi; and enabled the government to maintain an internationally competitive research environment. The full set of Cabinet-approved objectives and principles which guided New Zealand’s negotiating position can be found at:
The negotiations were challenging, encompassing a complex mix of scientific, legal, political, economic and indigenous rights issues. These included: the temporal and geographic scope of the instrument (e.g. should it apply to genetic resources acquired before entry into force of the Protocol, and to areas such as Antarctica); whether the benefits arising from derivatives (e.g. naturally occurring biochemical compounds such as sap and venom) and products of genetic resources should be included; how to deal with pathogens; the degree of specificity regarding measures to support compliance with the instrument or relevant domestic law; the relationship between this instrument and other related instruments; and whether the instrument should be legally-binding.
Another complex set of issues related to how to deal with "access and benefit-sharing" in relation to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources that would accommodate the diversity of national circumstances. These ranged from countries that have nationalised their genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge to a country such as New Zealand where rights relating to genetic resources and traditional knowledge are currently the subject of a major Treaty of Waitangi claim – the Wai 262 "flora, fauna and cultural intellectual property" claim.
Adoption of the Protocol at COP10 merely confirmed the final text and has no effect on New Zealand’s international obligations at this stage. The Protocol will come into force after it has been ratified or accepted by 50 Parties. For the time being Cabinet has decided that New Zealand should not become Party to the Nagoya Protocol until domestic policy issues relating to the Wai 262 claim, and ambiguity regarding the application of the Protocol to certain sectors (e.g. agriculture), are resolved or clarified. A copy of the paper which was taken to Cabinet can be found at:
Biodiversity ABS Nagoya Protocol Cabinet Paper - Final (PDF 405KB)
The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also carries out work on genetic resources. The CGRFA’s work looks at the broad contribution genetic diversity can make to food and agriculture, and is therefore broader than the development of useful products arising from genetic resources.
In 2001 the FAO adopted the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). This treaty establishes a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with no-cost, facilitated access to plant genetic material, and to ensure that users share any benefits they derive from genetic material used in plant breeding or biotechnology with the regions where they originated. The treaty includes a set of rules (the Multilateral System) for the exchange of genetic material between ex-situ plant collections for 64 important agricultural crops. New Zealand has not ratified this treaty.
 The two other objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity are: (1) the conservation of biological diversity and (2) the sustainable use of its components. "Genetic resources" are defined in Article 2 of the CBD as "genetic material of actual or potential value" and "genetic material" as "any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity".