COP15, the UN biodiversity summit taking place in Montreal, Canada, is due to end today. Although it was billed as the ‘last chance’ to protect species and ecosystems from destruction, reports suggest progress has been slow, with parties divided over the issue of funding for conservation efforts. One of the main questions has been how to ensure a more equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, ie genetic material obtained from plants, animals and microbes. The unequal sharing of benefits leads to what experts call biopiracy.
First, benefit-sharing refers to a system that aims to equitably distribute the benefits arising from the use of genetic information derived from natural resources between stakeholders – such as research organizations and biotechnology companies – and countries. where this biological resource is located. These genetic resources have led to various scientific breakthroughs over the years – from medicines to innovations in food and cosmetics. Advances in technology have now made it possible to digitize genetic data — digital sequence information (DSI) — and store it in online databases. This complicates the equitable distribution of benefits. According to Inter Press Service (IPS), negotiations on how to share the benefits arising from the use of INS stalled at COP15.
DSI is made freely available in public databases to be used as a tool for scientific innovation that benefits people around the world. For example, conservationists have used DSI to revive populations of the California condor, North America’s largest bird. However, countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have previously argued that open-source DSI “has become a loophole for pharmaceutical and other companies to avoid sharing profits derived from their flora, fauna. ..”, reported The Guardian.
Here’s how it works. Researchers have often drawn on the traditional knowledge of Indigenous communities to inform science. Instead of giving them due credit, however, historical practice has been to patent their discoveries, which not only restricts knowledge holders’ access to research results, but also excludes them from the later benefits of end product – both monetary and otherwise. . It’s about biopiracy, which, as an article in The Conversation notes, “often accentuates power inequalities between rich, tech-rich countries and less-rich, but bioresource-rich countries.”
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As a France 24 report noted, genetic resources have historically been extracted by wealthy nations from biodiversity-rich countries located primarily in the Global South – an exploitative relationship that dates back to colonialism. Thus, as noted in an IUCN briefing note, there is a need for guidelines to strike a balance between ensuring equitable benefit-sharing while allowing open DSI access to support research .
For example, The Conversation highlighted the controversy between the French Institute of Research for Development (IRD) and French Guiana. Researchers conducted interviews in French Guiana to identify local antimalarial remedies and published their findings in 2005. Ten years later, they were granted a patent for a compound derived from the plant. Quassia amara. While the researchers had found the compound through alcohol-based extraction methods as opposed to local distillation of the plant into tea, it was still the traditional knowledge of the locals that guided them to their discovery. While the case was settled retroactively, with the IRD required to share in the benefits, both scientific and economic, arising from the use of the compound, the patent remained with the institute, “meaning that he could still ban local communities from using the remedy.”
Over time, the right of countries to regulate access to their genetic resources has been recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity. There have been previous attempts to govern access and benefit-sharing at the international level, notably in the form of the Nagoya Protocol which sought to provide “greater legal certainty and transparency for providers and users of genetic resources”.
However, as a Globe and Mail report indicates, the Nagoya Protocol only deals with genetic material that can be physically transported, such as a soil sample or a plant specimen. As such, it ignores genetic information in digital form, which reinforces biopiracy. The benefits of the use of genetic resources are supposed to accrue to the country of origin. It’s important for local conservation efforts, Pierre Du Plessis, a policy expert based in Namibia, told The Globe and Mail.
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To overcome these problems, the scientists proposed a framework in which access to DSI is “decoupled” from benefit sharing, where “…payment would not be triggered by access to databases but rather by downstream at the point of marketing or retail,” Dr. Amber Hartman Scholz, co-author of the study, told Mongabay-India. In this way, scientific data can also be leveraged so that low- and middle-income countries that grant greater access to genetic resources receive more funding.
A union of African countries has also reportedly suggested a multilateral system in which a 1% tax would be levied on the retail prices of all products derived from genetic resources, which could then be distributed to support conservation efforts around the world.
Vishaish Uppal, director of governance, law and policy at WWF India, told a press briefing that the text emerging from the meetings, which forms the basis for deliberations and decision-making at COP15, recognizes that “the benefits of digital sequence information on genetic resources should be used to support the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and that the primary beneficiaries of these benefits should be indigenous peoples and local communities who are the custodians of the resources and associated traditional knowledge.
Yet there is little progress. This was summed up by du Plessis when he said earlier this year: “From an African perspective, we will not accept the adoption of the global biodiversity framework. [without agreement on DSI]. It’s just too awful an outcome to contemplate, but if that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll do. The final word on the matter, for now, will soon be made public at the end of COP15. Regardless of how parties decide on benefit-sharing, experts noted that DSI is a “decisive” issue for COP15.
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