Conventional wisdom treats biodiversity and biotechnology as rivalrous values. The global south is home to most of earth's vanishing species, while the global north holds the capital and technology needed to develop this natural wealth. The south argues that intellectual property laws enable the industrialized north to commit biopiracy. By contrast, the United States has characterized calls for profit-sharing as a threat to the global life sciences industry. Both sides magnify the dispute, on the apparent consensus that commercial exploitation of genetic resources holds the key to biodiversity conservation.
Both sides of this debate misunderstand the relationship between biodiversity and biotechnology. Both sides have overstated the significance of bioprospecting. It is misleading to frame the issue as whether intellectual property can coexist with the international legal framework for preserving biodiversity. Any lawyer can reconfigure intellectual property to embrace all of the intangible assets at stake, including raw genetic resources, advanced agricultural and pharmaceutical research, and ethnobiological knowledge.
The real challenge lies in directing biodiversity conservation and intellectual property toward appropriate preservation and exploitation of the biosphere. Commercial development aids biodiversity primarily by overcoming perverse economic incentives to consume scarce natural resources that may turn out to have greater global, long-term value. We continue to debate these issues not because we are rational, but precisely because we are not.
Indeed, legal approaches to biodiversity and to biotechnology are so twisted that they represent an extreme application of prospect theory. Losing supposedly hurts worse than winning feels good. The law of biodiversity and biotechnology appears to reverse this presumption. Biodiversity loss is staggering and undeniable. Humans are responsible for the sixth great extinction spasm of the Phanerozoic Eon. By contrast, gains from bioprospecting are highly speculative. Even if they are ever realized, they will be extremely concentrated. There is no defensible basis for treating ethnobiological knowledge as the foundation of a coherent approach to global economic development.
In spite of these realities, the global community continues to spend its extremely small and fragile storehouse of political capital on this contentious corner of international environmental law. Global economic diplomacy should be made of saner stuff. The fact that it is not invites us to treat the entire charade as a distinct branch of behavioral law and economics: bioprospect theory.