Debate at COP15 revolves around how to divide nature's genetic spoils

Debate at COP15 revolves around how to divide nature’s genetic spoils

People visit the immersive video experience hosted by the National Geographic Society during a press event during COP15 in Montreal on December 7.ANDREJ IVANOV/Getty Images

Anyone who shows up at the UN biodiversity conference, known as COP15, will find that it takes time to get through the door.

After first showing proof of vaccination in order to obtain a conference badge, the potential attendee then receives a box of KN95 masks and a two-week supply of COVID-19 test kits. The next step is to show a negative rapid test result before being admitted.

For the thousands in attendance, it’s a fitting reminder that the pandemic is still among us – fitting because global pandemics are a risk we all face when wildlife is destroyed or harvested in ways that expose humans to viruses. other species.

But the pandemic reveals in another way what is at stake as countries strive to make a pact to protect nature for future generations.

At COP15, a movement is growing to manage nature-related financial risks

The vaccines that helped make the reunion possible were developed using the RNA sequence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Other forms of genetic information could lead to new antibiotics or improved crop yields. Ultimately, this kind of molecular data is a product of the environment. Should part of the wealth it generates be diverted to preserving the environment?

Observers say the answer to this question could become a decisive issue that will determine the success of COP15.

To understand why, consider that biodiversity is simply genetics by another name. While nature conservation is often framed in terms of species and ecosystems, both can be viewed as vast networks of genes that interact with each other and with the environment in the complex dance known as the biological evolution name.

Countries with high biodiversity therefore hold a significant share of the genetic wealth of the planet, and could rightly ask what it is worth. This is very relevant at COP15, where one of the biggest issues at stake is how global conservation is supposed to be funded.

“It’s been huge in the negotiations, especially for those in the global south where the genetic resources are,” said Kina Murphy, conservation biologist at the Campaign for the Wild.

One of the main aims of the campaign is to promote the goal of preserving 30% of the planet for nature by 2030, which scientists believe would improve the protection of around 60% of all species and of the genetic diversity they represent.

Pierre Du Plessis, a policy expert based in Namibia working with a delegation of African countries at COP15, said sharing the benefits that arise from this genetic wealth is essential for conservation at the local level “because if you share the benefits , then there is an economic justification for sustainable use.

Mr. Du Plessis was among those who negotiated the Nagoya Protocol, adopted in 2010 and ratified by 137 countries (Canada is not a signatory).

The protocol provides for agreements between the countries where the genetic material is found and those where the material is used to generate knowledge and, potentially, commercial gain.

The problem is that the technology has now passed it.

“It’s kind of a protocol for analog times,” said David Castle, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Victoria and member of the Canadian delegation to COP15. “Now we are in the digital age.”

The Nagoya Protocol concerns genetic material that can be physically transported, such as a plant specimen or soil sample containing microbes. It does not include genetic sequencing information in digital form. This has put the protocol at a crossroads, since it is now possible, in theory, to walk into a forest and sequence an organism’s genome with a handheld device, then upload it to the cloud via a satellite link without ever having to carry anything. physical.

More generally, the sheer volume of genetic information currently sequenced makes it even more difficult to track and assign to a single location, especially when dealing with microbial species that may be found in multiple countries or continents.

Researchers fear that restrictions on access to genetic information will hinder discoveries that could benefit all humans. Such controls go against the goal of open science, which seeks to make data more accessible to everyone.

Nonetheless, an agreement that takes into account digital sequence information, or DSI, has become a must for African countries participating in negotiations for a global biodiversity framework at COP15, Du Plessis said.

Regardless of the rest of the framework, he said, “if there’s no solution to share the benefits of DSI, we don’t accept it.”

Opinions differ on how the matter should be resolved. As negotiations began in Montreal this week, at least six proposals were on the table. Some include the type of bilateral arrangements between countries agreed in the Nagoya Protocol.

In contrast, Namibia has championed a system that would impose a 1% tax at the retail level on all products derived from the use of genetic resources, from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics. The money raised would then be distributed to conservation projects around the world.

One of the main benefits of such a multilateral program is that it means access to digital genomes would be “benefit decoupled”, said Joerg Overmann, a microbiologist and COP15 observer for the German research foundation DFG.

In other words, a multilateral approach would leave scientists free to do their job of cataloging and exploring the planet’s genetic diversity – a pursuit that is seen as important to understanding what the biodiversity convention is meant to protect. – while benefits are collected and distributed through a separate mechanism.

Whatever decision is made at COP15, it is clear that this will not be the last word on genes and their impact on conservation. In a press conference and separate session on Friday, experts raised concerns about the prospect of synthetic biology and gene editing altering the genetic make-up of the biosphere with unintended consequences.

Even as conservationists strive to emphasize the planet’s genetic richness, the prospect of adapting it to commercial interests may prove increasingly hard to resist.

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