The statement, which encourages 'international solidarity', follows a new report from the UK's Plantlife International that shows many wild plants are under threat of extinction from the booming herbal medicines industry. This in turn threatens the livelihoods of numerous populations, mainly in developing countries.
The use of exotic plants like aloe vera, ginseng, green tea and jojoba oil is widespread in the EU, particularly in cosmetics, but there is also growing demand for extracts of these plants in dietary supplements and functional foods. The Commission urges companies and research institutes not to take genetic resources from other countries - usually developing countries that are rich in bio-diversity - without their consent.
"This is an issue of equity and fairness. The EU wants the developing countries to have a fair and equitable share of the benefits arising from the use of so-called genetic resources. If these countries use the benefits to protect bio-diversity and foster nature conservation, this could provide a win-win situation for trade and for the environment," said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.
The Plantlife report says the herbal medicine industry, which is failing to ensure the sustainability of its supplies, needs to take action. A survey of 17 herbal companies in the UK found only six are growing even a small percentage of the medicinal plants they use. Plants such as American ginseng and liquorice are under threat from over-harvesting.
Genetic resources, defined by the Commission as materials of plant, animal or microbial origin, are usually found in the southern hemisphere, mostly Latin America, south-east Asia, Oceania and Africa. They include plants such as cinnamon, which has essential oils with antiseptic properties, green tea, the subject of growing interest for its potent antioxidant activity and ginseng, used in numerous energy drinks and other products.
The communication suggests that companies and research institutions use standard agreements with the providers of genetic resources, such as governments or local populations, that set out terms and conditions under which the plants could be used and how the benefits from their use should be shared. All users of genetic resources are also encouraged to develop their own codes of conduct as a means of respecting the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Bonn Guidelines on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) adopted under the Convention in 2002.
Europe will also take measures to raise users' awareness of their obligations under the UN agreements, said the communication, such as creating a European network to provide information on international and European laws on access and benefit sharing.
It also opens the debate on the introduction into EU law of a requirement for patent applicants to reveal where they got their genetic resources from and if they made use of the 'traditional knowledge' of indigenous peoples or local populations.
The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have been invited to give their views on the proposals and the public will also be consulted before further steps are taken on the proposals.