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Bioprospecting discussion paper released

Bioprospecting discussion paper released

Associate Minister of Industry and Regional Development Pete Hodgson, today released a public discussion paper on bioprospecting – the investigation of biological resources for commercial purposes.

The paper asks whether New Zealand should promote the potential economic development opportunities and other benefits from bioprospecting. It covers the opportunities available, problems with the current regulatory framework and the advantages of having a bioprospecting policy. It does not address issues associated with the collection and use of human tissues or genetic material.

“Many modern pharmaceutical and industrial products have been derived from the natural world," Mr Hodgson said. “New Zealand has a unique array of indigenous species, both on land and in our large Exclusive Economic Zone. There are sure to be new pharmaceutical and industrial products waiting to be discovered through bioprospecting.

“Currently a company wanting to get involved in bioprospecting is likely to face difficulties in getting clear advice on the relevant regulations and requirements. We have uncertainty in the policy environment and ad hoc controls over access by foreign interests, which does not make the most of the potential opportunities and benefits.

“The government wants New Zealanders to consider how best to gain benefit from bioprospecting and the use of our biological resources, consistent with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. We want a policy that facilitates responsible access to biological resources with the informed consent of the owners of the resource, on mutually agreed terms. We want a policy that provides for fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from bioprospecting.

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Mr Hodgson said the policy would have to recognise and protect the value of Maori knowledge about biological resources, consistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“Work on a bioprospecting policy will not address the larger issues relating to ownership of New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna, or the suitability of New Zealand’s intellectual property system for the protection of indigenous knowledge. This is currently being reviewed by the Waitangi Tribunal in response to the Wai 262 claim, which asserts exclusive and comprehensive rights to flora, fauna and other taonga.

"The work on a bioprospecting policy will however examine how the current legal framework could better provide for sharing benefits with Maori and protecting the use of traditional knowledge. This may help the government address the concerns raised in Wai 262.”

Mr Hodgson said comment from stakeholders including researchers and those currently active in bioprospecting, as well as Maori, would be essential for the design of effective policy.

The discussion document will be available at:

Attached: questions and answers on bioprospecting

Bioprospecting: Questions and Answers

What is bioprospecting?

Bioprospecting is the examination of biological resources (for example, plants, animals, micro-organisms) for features that may be of value for commercial development. Bioprospecting focuses on the discovery and commercialisation of valuable biological features. It is not genetic modification, although this is one of many possible research and development techniques that could be applied to a bioprospecting discovery.

Why is the Government taking an interest in bioprospecting?

Bioprospecting has the potential to uncover highly valuable commercial discoveries. An improvement in the bioprospecting policy framework will increase New Zealand's ability to take advantage of bioprospecting opportunities, while ensuring that happens in a way that gives the public confidence that the appropriate checks and balances are in place.

How is this work on bioprospecting related to the biotechnology strategy?

Bioprospecting is one type of biotechnology research that falls under the biotechnology strategy. The strategy is setting the high level framework for biotech research, focusing on: better connections between New Zealand communities and the biotechnology sector; effective regulation to manage the development and introduction of new biotechnologies; and growing the commercial value of the biotechnology sector.

What are the problems with the current approach to bioprospecting?

The current framework is ad hoc and reliant on legislation designed for other purposes. There is no clear process to maximise possible benefits to New Zealand and to address the concerns of Maori around bioprospecting.

What does the Government propose to do to address these problems?

A range of policy options have been presented in the discussion paper. These are presented for discussion purposes only, and do not represent any final decisions by the government. The three main policy options are: the release of a government policy statement on bioprospecting that would give government agencies guidance in the discharge of their statutory functions when considering bioprospecting; establishment of a government co-ordinating authority that could provide a point of contract for foreign investors and researchers, share information and maintain databases on bioprospecting activities in New Zealand; and establishment of voluntary or mandatory benefit-sharing frameworks, with a view to capturing benefits at the national level, and sharing benefits with Mâori.

Officials will make policy recommendations to the government after analysis of public submissions and further consultation with Maori and stakeholders.

How is bioprospecting related to genetic modification?

Bioprospecting is the search for valuable chemicals in living things. Genetic modification is the alteration of the genetic makeup of living matter. There are many possible downstream research techniques that could be applied to a bioprospecting discovery and GM is just one of them.

What issues concern Maori about bioprospecting?

Maori have a general concern around the ownership of biological resources, and the ability of New Zealand’s intellectual property framework to protect traditional knowledge. These concerns are expressed in the Wai 262 claim before the Waitangi Tribunal. Also in some cases it appears that researchers may have used Maori traditional knowledge about medicinal plants etc to help their research, without sharing resulting benefits with Maori.

What is the Government doing about Maori concerns?

There will be specific consultation with Maori on bioprospecting policy, particularly any options that may affect Maori interests.

How does bioprospecting relate to the current Wai 262 claim?

The government is responding to the Wai 262 claim through the standard Waitangi Tribunal process. The bioprospecting discussion paper presents some options to address Maori concerns, such as benefit-sharing frameworks. It does not consider the higher level issues, such as the ownership of New Zealand’s biological resources, that are part of Wai 262. The Waitangi Tribunal is currently hearing the evidence related to the Wai 262 claim and the Government is participating in this process.

How much bioprospecting is currently occurring in New Zealand?

There is a general lack of information on the bioprospecting sector - which is fairly small in New Zealand - making it hard to quantify the extent of current research, or the potential commercial value of our biological resources. There are, however, a number of bioprospecting projects currently being undertaken by the Crown Research Institutes, universities and private companies. For example: The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has a Marine Biotechnology Programme. The Marine Chemistry Group at the University of Canterbury is involved in screening New Zealand marine flora, fauna and micro-organisms to identify species that contain bioactive components. Living Nature is a New Zealand company based in Kerikeri that produces natural skin and body care products with no synthetic chemicals, genetically modified or animal ingredients. The ingredients used in its products are essences extracted from over 80 unique medicinal plants. Industrial Research Limited is involved in screening marine species, waste streams from meat and milk processing and native terrestrial and marine plants for bioactive molecules (in collaboration with the Wellington School of Medicine) and functional food ingredients. Phytomed Medicinal Herbs is a New Zealand company that manufactures and supplies liquid extracts and dried herbs to health practitioners and other herbal manufacturers. It also produces and sells the Kiwiherb product range to retailers. It has a range of more than 190 different liquid extracts and tinctures. Phytomed promotes the use of native New Zealand plants, and works with local iwi in the Ureweras and East Coast to ensure the harvest and use of native plants is sustainable and ethically sound.

The discussion document has more information on these projects.


A valuable bioprospecting discovery is hard to make, but can be worth many millions of dollars if it ends up contributing to a commercial product. Even if New Zealand researchers are unable to commercialise a discovery, there is still the opportunity to do collection and testing work in New Zealand that can add value to discoveries that might be further developed elsewhere. Bioprospecting research also expands the skills of New Zealand scientists. Local communities and Maori can benefit from bioprospecting discoveries that draw on their skills and knowledge.


A number of countries are developing access and benefit sharing regimes for their biological resources. These regimes vary widely around the world. Australia is implementing an access and benefit sharing regime, and we have drawn upon their experiences when working on our policy


Policy work on bioprospecting is helping New Zealand to meet our obligations under the Convention, which lays down a number of principles and goals in relation to access and benefit sharing.


The Growth and Innovation Framework emphasises the contribution that innovative scientific research and development, particularly in the field of biotechnology, can make to the New Zealand economy. Bioprospecting is one example of biotechnology, which with suitable safeguards for environmental, social and cultural values, has the potential to create a wide range of benefits for New Zealand.


Submissions on the bioprospecting discussion paper will be accepted by the Ministry of Economic Development until 28 February 2003. After submissions have been analysed the ministry will release a summary of submissions, then lead further work with the aim of making substantive policy recommendations to Cabinet later in 2003. This work will involve targeted consultation with stakeholders and Maori in relation to specific issues as required.

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