Today we hear less about biopiracy than we did a few years ago. As I’ve argued elsewhere, some cases of alleged biopiracy are more ambiguous than critics of cultural appropriation typically admit. But one case of flagrant biopiracy, that of sweeteners drived from the South American species Stevia rebaudiana, is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.
S. rebaudiana is an herbaceous plant native to eastern Paraguay that was long used by indigenous Guaraní peoples as a sweetener for teas and medicinal preparations. The sweetness of Stevia comes from several glycosides, including stevioside and rebaudioside, that produce a sensation of intense sweetness without increasing the blood glucose of those who consume it.
Use of Stevia as a sweetener was documented by Western science in the late nineteenth century, although its chemical constituents were not identified for another sixty years. As developed nations began to search for calorie-free sweeteners, the properties of Stevia became of considerable interest. Stevia seems to have been embraced as an alternative to sugar first by Japanese and Chinese corporations. In the U.S., use of Stevia initially stalled because of preliminary evidence that its chemical constituents might be carcinogenic, although effective lobbying by manufacturers of competing artificial sweeteners was also a factor. The carcinogenicity claim was eventually refuted, however, and Stevia‘s commercial value has grown substantially since the 1980s.
The Guaraní, one of South America’s poorest and most endangered indigenous populations, have received negligible benefits from the global market for this potentially billion-dollar product. Ironically, marketing campaigns for Stevia-based sweeteners often identify it as “traditional” or “indigenous.”
Smallholder farmers in Paraguay derive some income from cultivation of the plant for the market. But even this modest compensation is being undermined by commercial biosynthesis of Stevia‘s key compounds in the developed world. In other words, industrial producers no longer need the Stevia plant to manufacture the sweetener that has become a hot product in the competition for zero-calorie alternatives to cane sugar in parts of the world where obesity and diabetes are major public health problems. The scale of this obvious injustice is staggering.
For more information on this situation and efforts to address it, a good starting point is the publication The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia, a report published by a consortium of European and Paraguayan NGOs. A protest petition directed to Coca-Cola can be found here.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.