South Africa has untold potential to develop new blockbuster drugs from indigenous plants like hoodia, but is sabotaging the natural products industry with unwieldy new laws aimed at protecting biodiversity.
Scientists and industry leaders at a conference in Cape Town last week slammed the Environmental Management Biodiversity Act as the kiss of death for bioprospecting - the search for new ways of using plants in areas like medicine, nutrition and cosmetics.
Multi-million dollar species that have already been developed include hoodia - now being exploited by Unilever as an appetite suppressant - pelargonium, rooibos and buchu.
The value of the German market for pelargonium extract alone, as a treatment for tuberculosis and bronchitis, was estimated to be worth ß80million in 2006; pharmaceutical products generated global revenue of $400billion in 2002, and nearly half were based on plants discovered in the wild.
Biodiversity Act regulations published earlier this year are intended, among other things, to ensure that companies that develop drugs from wild plants share their profits with local communities.
The regulations require that bioprospectors obtain a permit before they collect any plant material, and that they sign a series of agreements with target species "stakeholders" before they even apply for a permit.
The legislation was drawn up as part of South Africa's commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity which was drafted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.