The Downside of Natural: Biopiracy

Many people are unaware or oblivious to the fact that many of the ingredients in the products they use come from nature, whether as an oil, extract, or a chemical derived from natural sources.  Before it is in your conditioner, shampoo, soda, crackers, pill, etc. it was existing in nature.  I am all for natural and organic, but natural (as with anything) is not always good.  Some products and company operations have a high impact on the environment, which is dependent on the ingredient and its quantity within a product.


Raw materials are key components in almost every supply chain in consumer goods (clothing, personal care products, food, etc.).  In most cases the largest environmental impact occurs upstream in the supply chain (i.e. from raw materials).  If you have ever read a sustainability report for a company whose product is based on natural resource, they often exclude these impacts in their reporting.  The result is often a significant decrease in what their reported greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts should be.  As an example, cotton is a major raw material in the fashion/textiles industry.  Some of this cotton may be sourced organically or sustainably (land dedicated to agriculture), but some may sourced from lands that were recently deforested.  Agriculture in itself is also a very intensive process and also adds to greenhouse gas emissions, specifically methane.  The same can be said for soft drinks and other products that utilize agricultural products.


San Male with Hoodia Plant

Approximately a decade ago ‘hoodia’ (hoodia gordonii) became a big diet craze.  The cactus, Ilhoba in San language, is native to Namibia and South Africa and has been used by the San people as an appetite supressor.  The San people are one of the oldest genetic populations in the world and live as hunter-gatherers who have used hoodia as an appetite suppressor for generations as it allows them to go for 1-2 days without food in the Namib and Kalahari Deserts, yet stay sustained.  The San people’s knowledge spread within South Africa, with the South African Council for Scientific Research isolating and later patenting the ingredient of hoodia gordonii that causes appetite suppression in 1977 and 1996, respectively.  The patent was then licensed to pharmaceutical companies who began studying the plant.  These companies harvested so much of the plant that it became scare for the San to find, causing hoodia gordonii to eventually be granted protected status (Namibia).  The intellectual property of the San people was acknowledged in 2002, however, the San have not being properly compensated as per a prior agreement which stated they would receive 6-8% of profits of products containing hoodia.  After 2008 the hoodia craze had subsided due to unsubstantiated scientific claims about hoodia and its safety.

The below video showcases a great deal about the San people.  The first 15 minutes discuss the challenges they have faced over hoodia, as well other challenges they have faced, such as being displaced from their ancestral lands and being forced to live outside of their traditional societies.


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