CURRENT BIODIVERSITY CONCERNS
Elpidio V. Peria
11 December 2016
Parties to the CBD in a contact group meeting on synthetic biology, Cancun, Mexico, 6 December 2016 (EV Peria)
In one of the regular evening round of negotiations last Wednesday evening, 7 December, here in Cancun, Mexico, where the 13th biennial meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is being held, Namibia proposed that the Conference of the Parties declare that the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources is equivalent to the utilization of genetic resources such that the users will be obliged to share the benefits of such utilization fairly and equitably, along the lines of the third objective of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
This exchange of digital information on genetic resources that are being transferred among biological research centers worldwide has been going on for a long time but this got noticed when developing countries meeting in an Ad Hoc Technical Experts Group (AHTEG) on Synthetic Biology meeting in Montreal in September 2015 last year kept warning that the hottest and talked-about technology shaking up research and the foundational principles of biology in recent memory, called synthetic biology, will make futile their efforts to secure more benefits for themselves and their indigenous peoples and local communities from their genetic resources.
This problem will get worse since, through the techniques of synthetic biology, the natural products arising from the unique genetic resources of developing countries, can be replicated in the laboratory and produced in commercial quantities to manufacture different products by companies who may use these techniques. In effect, these companies need not go to developing countries to do bioprospecting and countries who expect to get some amount of money and capacity-building from their genetic resources will actually get nothing from these resources.
Another aspect of synthetic biology is that as the sequencing of genetic information becomes much faster and cheaper, some of these data generated from these researches are transformed into digital information that are stored in computers and often sent from one researcher to another via the internet. There are even gene-bank digital portals where genetic resources are downloaded from the internet and no longer sought out or prospected from the wild or in the open seas or forests from developing countries.
This is a serious issue that was picked up by the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advise (SBSTTA) of the CBD when it met early this year to fine-tune the draft decisions that will be taken up by COP 13 and one of the paragraphs on the agenda item on synthetic biology deal with a recommended draft decision which reads :
(o) [Invites the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol to clarify, if and how, the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources relates to access and benefit sharing.]
Countries led by Japan, Canada and Honduras opposed and even wanted to delete the proposal of Namibia saying that this issue is premature (Japan) or that this issue is bigger than the issue of synthetic biology and thus should not even be taken up in this agenda item on synthetic biology as this is about the 3rd objective of the CBD which deals with the issue of fair and equitable benefit-sharing on the utilization of genetic resources (Canada), and this will generally stifle and make difficult scientific research as there will be another layer of regulation on scientists because of this and anyway, most information now is mediated through open source so this is generally a setback for these developments that actually help research (Honduras).
Developing countries Philippines, Guatemala, Mexico, Grenada, Iran, Colombia Uganda, Malaysia, China, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa, Kenya, Uruguay supported the Namibian proposal mainly arguing that this issue is not premature, it is a left-over issue from the negotiations of the Nagoya Protocol before it got adopted in 2010, and this has been going on for a long time, something must be done about this and once there is no decisive action on this, the Nagoya Protocol, as what Malaysia emphatically said, will be emptied of its contents there will be nothing to share benefits anymore since these genetic material will not even have to be sourced from developing countries anymore.
The EU, as goes with its habit even in the climate negotiations, positioned itself between these two opposing views saying that it is supportive of discussing this issue in the Nagoya Protocol context but with some minor tweaks adding the clause “whether and if so how” in the draft paragraph.
The contact group considered the Namibian text again Thursday evening and that discussion generated 3 more proposals, which in addition to the current paragraph (o), will be attempted to be consolidated by the Co-Chairs of the contact group and presented to the negotiating group by next week. The various proposals currently on the table are :
o)alt [EU Invites][Recommends to] COPMOP Nagoya a coordinated approach with the COP CBD to [EUconsider whether and if so how][clarify, if and how] the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources in the context of synthetic biology relates to access and benefit-sharing[EU in the context of the Nagoya Protocol] (para. o amended by EU)
(o)altalt Decides that the utilization of digital sequence information on genetic resources is equivalent to utilization of genetic resources and that the benefits arising should be shared fairly and equitably as per the third objective of the Convention, and recommends to COPMOP Nagoya a coordinated approach to clarify how the benefits arising from the utilization of digital sequence information on genetic resources can be shared fairly and equitably (Developing countries led by Namibia and Mauritania)
“Requests the Executive Secretary to compile information on the use, management and access to digital genetic sequence data on genetic resources in the Convention and its Protocols. (Japan)