Biodiversity: a US Interest?

THOUSANDS of species have become extinct since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a meeting whose major goal was to curb the accelerating loss of species and overall biological diversity worldwide. Lost forever with these species are potential sources of food, medicine, and natural wonders.

At the Earth Summit, the world watched in dismay as the United States refused to join all other industrialized nations in signing the Convention on Biological Diversity. To date, 165 other nations have agreed to the treaty.

Now, almost a year later, it is becoming even more urgent that President Clinton sign the biodiversity treaty.

Pushed relentlessly by exploitation, the species extinction rate already is at or fast approaching one-half of 1 percent of all species per year. This rate has the potential to irreparably harm the natural ecosystems and their life-supporting services: regulating atmospheric gases, generating fertile soils, cycling vital nutrients, and controlling insects that would otherwise destroy food crops.

Political leaders have joined scientists in recognizing the importance of the crisis. Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over environmental issues, and Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, ranking member of the committee, have urged that the US sign the treaty.

Mr. Clinton himself has repeatedly noted his goal "to provide real leadership on global environmental issues." Stymied thus far in its efforts to get the president to sign the treaty, the environmental community is now more hopeful and pressing for signature by Earth Day, April 22.

The importance of this treaty for the Clinton administration is underscored by recalling the atmosphere of urgency at the Earth Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders in history. With the exception of President Bush, these leaders shared a sense of growing crisis about the degradation of the Earth's environment and the resulting impoverishment of millions of people.

Responding to the arguments of some members of the biotechnology industry, Mr. Bush complained that the treaty would jeopardize US companies' patent and other intellectual property rights to products developed from the genetic resources of developing countries.

But as Defenders of Wildlife's staff and others at the final pre-summit negotiating session in Nairobi, Kenya, recognized, the treaty language inserted by US negotiators eliminated any reasonable claim that intellectual property rights were at risk. Perhaps not even industry officials really believed those rights were in danger. As one of them noted, they were simply following the standard lobbyists' formula of painting a worst case scenario.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration accepted this scenario. A recent study by Gareth Porter of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute concluded that the US biotechnology industry's assessment at Rio of the legal effects of provisions of the agreement on intellectual property rights is "inaccurate in every case."

It is standard that before international conventions are implemented, signatories are expected to negotiate final agreements on contentious issues. The US government can best protect the global environment and legitimate biotech interests by signing the convention and then negotiating the specifics of implementation.

At least a few US biotech and pharmaceutical companies have now concluded that a US signature, as long as it is accompanied by clarifying language, is acceptable.

WHAT if the signatories manage to achieve treaty implementation without the US? Developing countries say they intend to favor biotech companies from nations that signed the convention. For companies that fought against the Rio agreement, the price could be banishment from the world's richest sources of untapped genetic materials.

Clinton has given the US biotech industry sufficient opportunity to propose on its own that the convention be signed with reasonable interpretations consistent with those other industrialized nations have specified.

Now, with or without the blessing of all of the industry, he should sign. Simultaneously, he should issue an executive order that begins US implementation of the convention's conservation provisions. The order should ensure the cooperation of US agencies, accelerate needed biodiversity research, and promise better use of US laws to conserve our own biodiversity.

Bush abdicated the US's role as world environmental leader at the Earth Summit. The biodiversity convention offers Clinton the opportunity to regain that title.

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