The finding comes from a report on Tuesday released in Bangkok where scores of governments and parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are holding five days of talks on a new global regime governing the use of genetic resources.

"The stakes are fairly high," said Alan Oxley, chairman of Australia's APEC Study Centre who wrote the 71-page report which argues that fiddling with patent laws will not stop gene thieves.

Poor nations want a binding agreement to ensure they get a share of the profits from any plant taken out of their country that ends up in a best-selling drug, cosmetic or health food. 

One way of doing this is to regulate the system of international patents to prevent theft of genetic resources.

Local people suffer

Green groups say indigenous communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America are often victims of "biopiracy", when companies or research institutes develop crops or treatments from plant varieties without rewarding the local people who originally bred them.

Some studies suggest 52% of all prescription drugs sold in the US are derived from genetic resources.

The Bangkok talks seek to
protect genetic resources

The best way to control biopiracy was to set up a system of market-based contracts where companies or researchers paid for the right to search and collect genetic resources, said Oxley, a former trade ambassador.

Restricting patents would mean less fee income from "bio-prospecting" in developing countries, and less money for local communities, he said.

"Companies would not invest in research and development if
they did not know if they could use new products based on
patents," Oxley said.

Diversity

Adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the CBD aims to conserve the planet's diversity, or variety of life, ensure the sustainable use of genetic resources and regulate a fair distribution of benefits.

Firms often steal from local
communities and habitats

In 2002, the parties approved voluntary guidelines advising governments on how to give researchers and companies access to genetic resources and ensure that those who own them or passed on their traditional knowledge shared in the benefits.

Developing countries now want to give those guidelines some teeth in Bangkok to ensure they share in the wealth.

"Access has never been interrupted. It has always been, but it must be reciprocated, or it risks being discontinued," Ethiopian chief delegate Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher said.

Access fears

Rich nations worried about access and patents say the effects of the 2002 guidelines, which some countries have implemented gradually, need to be studied before taking the next step.

"The stakes are fairly high"

Chairman of Australia's APEC Study Centre Alan Oxley

"Without access there cannot be any benefits to share," the head of the Dutch delegation said in his opening remarks.

Oxley said any move against patents and intellectual property rights would face strong opposition from industrialised countries where most big drug, agriculture and cosmetics firms are based.

"It's clear some countries are uncomfortable. They are politely saying they really don't want this," he said.

No consensus

He expected the 71 mega-diverse nations - a bloc of developing countries rich in species and led by India and Brazil - to get enough support to put their proposals on the agenda of the next full CBD meeting in 6002.

But with so many contentious political, economic and legal issues to work through, the chances of any consensus emerging from the talks which end on Friday are remote, organisers say.

"There will be a bit of searching here. If we get an agreement on what we will be negotiating, that in itself would be a breakthrough," said Olivier Jalbert, CBD deputy executive secretary.