Marine biotechnology industry would benefit from UNCLOS legal regime
There is considerable debate currently on how UNCLOS can govern marine genetic resources and without consensus, patent holders cannot enjoy the protections necessary in the global marketplace to spur continued investment in genetic resources. The U.S., as a non-party to UNCLOS, lacks standings to contribute to or lead these debates and puts its own marine biotechnology industry at a disadvantage as a result.
[ Page 24 ]
The deep seas are also opening up as a new frontier for genetic research. Research institutions, as well as the pharmaceutical, health care, cosmetics, and agricultural industries, are increasingly interested in the biodiversity associated with mineral-rich, deep sea, warm hydrothermal vents, and cold-seeps, which were only discovered as the Conference drew to a close. At least several hundred patents have now been issued by the United States, the European Union, Japan, and other developed countries for organisms, products, and processes originating in the deep. Many developing countries, however, object to the patentability of deep sea materials, on the basis that it runs afoul of the spirit of the "common heritage of mankind" and of the provisions of UNCLOS prohibiting using marine scientific research to appropriate marine resources or "any part" of the seabed.17 The Convention recognizes the fundamental truth that "the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and must be addressed as a whole." Without consensus on the legal structure governing these genetic resources, patent holders cannot enjoy the protections necessary in the global marketplace to spur continued investment in genetic resources.
[ Page 25 ]
The European Union has tried to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries by proposing that a new Implementing Agreement be developed to address the marine environment more broadly. The EU would like to see such an agreement treat the issue within a broader context of the sustainable use of all marine resources and alongside ventures such as carbon sequestration, ocean fertilization, and the mitigation of ocean noise and pollution. The EU proposal is pragmatic in that it seeks to avoid the ideological question related to the legal status ofmarine genetic resources, namely, whether they are part of the "common heritage," and instead focuses on the governance questions of how they can be used sustainably and how their benefits can be shared equitably. The United States continues to sit on the sidelines of these negotiations with the untenable view that patenting deep sea organisms is simply part of the customary freedom of the high seas. The United States will not be successful in imposing a unilateral view and will likely have to accommodate the concerns of developing countries and approach the issue within the broader context of sustainable use that the European Union has identified. It must either re-engage on this issue, or else be left behind.