Cosmetics, food, and other products sold by retailers often contain ingredients based on R&D conducted on plant and animal DNA/RNA or “genetic resources.” But what retailers, manufacturers, and others in the supply chain may not know is the ultimate origin of those genetic resources. They may need to start paying attention.

In October, 193 countries adopted a new treaty – the “Nagoya Protocol” – that outlines a framework of rules for the use of genetic resources. The Protocol was borne from concerns expressed by countries that genetic resources were being taken illegally from their borders, used without their permission, and commercialized into products without providing adequate compensation. NGOs and even governments have aggressively targeted some companies as “biopirates,” alleging that they took and/or used genetic resources without permission.

To protect their brand from allegations of biopiracy, retailers may consider implementing protective measures such as traceability schemes or supplier codes and audits. Retailers operating internationally, especially those that bring to market their own products, will also want to watch how governments in their key markets implement the Nagoya Protocol into laws and regulations. There is substantial ambiguity in the Protocol so many important details, including whether and to what extent retailers will be held responsible, will be determined by individual governments. It should be noted that the United States is not party to the Protocol — although that has not prevented NGOs from attacking American brands for “biopiracy.”