New approach needed for conservation and ethical sharing of biological resources and science benefits

A new approach for ethically sharing the benefits of biological resources, science and technology is urgently needed to conserve biodiversity according to a group of international researchers.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, researchers from Griffith University, People and Plants International, University of Cape Town and the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law write that access and benefit sharing (ABS), an international framework that links access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge to the sharing of monetary and other benefits as a biodiversity conservation tool, needs a rethink.

The ABS framework arose out of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the 2010 Nagoya Protocol (NP). It was developed to give countries rights over their biodiversity as well as the ability to harness the economic power from their resources, such as from drug discoveries derived from sponge genetic materials.

But, as the authors point out, as the global community confronts massive and catastrophic biodiversity loss, the enormous sums of money and time spent hoping that indirect economic incentives from high-tech sectors through ABS will conserve biodiversity should be reconsidered.

“Many countries are implementing the ABS framework but it doesn’t address the biodiversity issues it was meant to address. Instead, there’s much miscommunication between lawyers, policy-makers and scientists.”

Professor Charles Lawson from Griffith University’s Environmental Futures Research Institute said ABS had turned into a regulatory block for exchanging materials (and potentially information) without either the conservation or equity outcomes.

“In effect this is red tape that has good intentions without meeting them, and worse, limiting the openness of science,’’ he said.

“Viruses are not being shared when there’s a disease outbreak, plant breeding climate tolerant crops is being hampered by limiting access to germplasm, and so on. These are real-world consequences for a form of regulation that is not working.”

Organisations that have pursued ABS include the World Health Organization (WHO) Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework for the Sharing of Influenza Viruses and Access to Vaccines and Other Benefits, the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (or “Plant Treaty”), and deliberations for a new ocean treaty under the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Dr Fran Humphries, a Senior Research Fellow with the Law Futures Centre and Australian Rivers Institute, said more than 60% of the world’s ocean biodiversity was legally unprotected.

“These are the areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), which include life in the high seas (international waters) and in the ocean floor below the high seas water column. The ABNJ is not governed by any county and is essentially a ‘free for all’ when it comes to taking and using the areas’ biodiversity,” she said.

SARS-CoV-2–also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19–isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML

“Recognising the risk to what is essentially the world’s last global commons, the UN is in the process of developing a new treaty to address gaps in UNCLOS.

“The proposed treaty text relies heavily on the ABS idea for dealing with marine genetic resources but countries cannot agree on how this could work in practice. This debate is stalling crucial negotiations on other tools for protecting marine biodiversity including marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, capacity building and the transfer of marine technology.”

Dr Michelle Rourke, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow and virus-sharing expert with Griffith Law School said the advent of digital sequence information (DSI) has highlighted the inadequacies of the access and benefit sharing mechanism.

“Despite its original design as a bridge between advanced technologies and conservation, international ABS policy has focused on the collection and exchange of physical material, largely ignoring developments in biotechnology, which relies heavily on the use of genetic sequence data,’’ she said.

“So, the science has moved on but the policy framework hasn’t. Many scientists are concerned that if ABS applies to DSI, it will restrict access to information and slow down crucial technological and conservation research, with little hope of equitably sharing any benefits.

“We really feel that with the spread of ABS into other policy processes in the UN, now’s the time to consider what it is we are trying to achieve with this mechanism and perhaps go back to the drawing board.”

Professor Lawson said more broadly it was about ensuring the doing of science and the results of science remained open and accessible to everyone.

“We can’t build on the shoulders of giants without the knowledge andinformation ofthose giants.”

The authors have a newly published article in Marine Policy that provides more detail about new ways of sustainably and equitably governing marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction, without relying solely on the ABS concept.