A standoff over biopiracy is threatening to derail a global agreement to halt the loss of nature, with developing countries demanding they are paid for drug discoveries and other commercial products based on their biodiversity.
During negotiations in Geneva for a Paris-style agreement on nature, which ended this week, the use of genetic data in a digital form – known as digital sequence information (DSI) – arose as a clear point of division, with African countries insisting on any deal must include a financial mechanism to compensate them for discoveries using digital forms of their biodiversity.
With echoes of tensions in climate talks about the failure of developed countries to meet the $100bn-a-year climate finance target at Cop26 in Glasgow, a large group of developing countries, including Brazil, India and Gabon, also called on rich nations to Pledge more than $100bn (£75bn) a year of biodiversity finance from public and private sources at the Cop15 summit in Kunming this year, reaching $700bn by 2030.
The disagreement came after a slow fortnight of negotiations in Switzerland, which, despite progress in some areas, left the ambition of the overall agreement in the balance. Leading conservation organizations said talks had moved at a “snail’s pace” and further negotiations have been scheduled for the end of June in Nairobi to prepare for Cop15 in China.
From creating Covid vaccines to manufacturing drink sweeteners, the genetic sequences of plants, animals and other organisms in digital form have revolutionized biotechnology and life sciences research, leading to new HIV therapies, genetically modified crops and innovations in conservation.
Sharing Sars-CoV-2’s genetic code in early 2020 led to the rapid creation of Covid-19 tests and vaccines. It is hoped that similar techniques will lead to new cancer drugs and other innovations in a variety of sectors.
But during this week’s talks, countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean warned that DSI has become a loophole for pharmaceutical companies and others to avoid sharing profits deriving from their flora, fauna and other forms of life – what has become known as biopiracy.
Sharing the benefits from genetic resources is one of the three objectives of the UN convention on biological diversity (CBD), through which governments are negotiating a Paris-style agreement for nature known as the global biodiversity framework, with draft targets to protect 30% of land and sea, reduce agricultural pollution and environmentally harmful subsidies.
Pierre du Plessis, a Namibian negotiator speaking for Africa, said that without a deal on DSI he would not allow the adoption of the entire agreement, warning that Cop15 in Kunming could become a “Copenhagen moment” for biodiversity, in a reference to when 2009 climate talks in the Danish capital collapsed.
“From an African point of view, we will not accept the adoption of the global biodiversity framework [without agreement on DSI]. It’s just an outcome too horrible to contemplate but if that’s what we need to do then that’s what we will do,” Du Plessis said.
Africa has proposed a 1% biodiversity levy on the retail price of all products based on genetic resources and DSI, with proceeds going to biodiversity conservation around the world. The idea is likely to face significant opposition from the EU, Canada and other rich countries.
An agreement on the procedures to follow when asking to use genetic information, known as the Nagoya protocol, is already in place after concerns that companies were commercializing indigenous knowledge and genetic resources for nothing. But not all countries have ratified the agreement and they are allowed to make their own rules, which has meant DSI has become a gray area.
At the closing plenary session on Tuesday, countries signed off an agreement including further negotiations on DSI, which Du Plessis welcomed, but said there was a long way to go, amid fears that scientific and commercial research could get entangled in red tape if the issue is not resolved.
Leonardo de Athayde, head of Brazil’s negotiating team, said DSI was an important issue for his country that should be included in the final text.
“We’re open to considering different options as long as it generates money and provides an incentive also for sustainable use of biodiversity,” he said.
Other states warned that without an agreement in Kunming, access to biodiversity in their country for scientific and commercial research would face increased bureaucracy.
Dr Amber Hartman Scholz, a researcher from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ and a leading expert on DSI, said whatever was agreed in China must be simple while also maintaining free and open access for scientific research around the world. Currently, DSI is held on three main databases in Japan, Europe and the US.
“The changes that molecular biological data is going to make to our lives in the coming decades – cancer drugs, personalized medicine, everything where nature interacts with man – that’s all based upon sequence data. It’s going to blow our minds in the next 100 years,” she said.
“Sharing benefits from DSI is just, but paralyzing science with red tape is not,” said Hartman Scholz. “We have to get this right.”
Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace China, said DSI highlighted “some of the deepest ideological differences between CBD parties”.
“It is a scientifically and legally complex issue and is tightly connected to finance. With limited progress in Geneva, there are already too many bombs for Kunming to remove. DSI is certainly one of the thorniest that will detonate a chain of explosions if not managed carefully,” he said.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism