Biodiversity prospecting’, sometimes shortened to ‘bioprospecting’, is the exploration of biodiversity for commercially valuable genetic resources and biochemicals. It describes a search for resources, and the collection of resources with the intention to commercialise them. It applies to plants, animals and all living organisms, including bacteria and fungi. Bioprospecting can also include the collection of traditional knowledge relating to the use of these resources from local communities.
The intention of an activity on a resource determines whether it is considered as bioprospecting or not. If the intention is to make money from the resource through the keeping, breeding, cultivation, trading and use of it for the purpose of development and production of drugs, food flavours, fragrances, cosmetics, colours, extracts, other biochemical compounds, new plant varieties and products, it is included in the definition of bioprospecting. Bioprospecting may have a significant negative impact on the environment if keystone species are removed or local extinctions caused through overharvesting of the resource. To ensure that bioprospecting is done sustainably, the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, Act 10 of 2004 was promulgated and subsequently in 2008, it’s associated Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing Regulations. Bioprospecting does not include all research on biodiversity; in particular it does not include academic or conservation research, although these may have commercial applications in the future. It also does not include all commercial uses of natural resources – for example it does not include the trade in existing ornamental plants, logging, commercial agriculture, or even the local collection and sale of non-timber forest or veld products for domestic or subsistence purposes.
The development of new innovation drugs through bioprospecting refers to activities undertaken by a small number of commercial sectors. As a result, and because this type of bioprospecting usually involves taking small samples of material, its impact on the environment is usually minimal. However, it is important to ensure that bioprospecting is done in a sustainable and ethical manner and results in fair benefits for the country and local people from which the genetic resources are prospected. This is an important objective of the International Convention on Biological Diversity to which South Africa is party. Because South Africa is rich in biodiversity and traditional knowledge, and also has well-developed research capacity and institutions