Ahead of critical meetings in 2022 which may determine the fate of global treaties on the governance of biodiversity and genetic resources, scientists have published a series of peer-reviewed research, review, and opinion articles examining the importance of, and challenges to, sharing and using data critical to global food security and biodiversity conservation.
In an editorial to launch the new special issue of the journal Plants, People, Planet, entitled “Biodiversity data: The importance of access and the challenges regarding benefit sharing,” the editors remarked that mechanisms which address availability and equity in the use of biodiversity resources in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Plant Treaty), and other important fora were due for reform.
Colin Khoury, one of journal editors, a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and Director of Science and Conservation at the San Diego Botanic Garden, notes that the volume of genetic and other types of information on biodiversity has increased exponentially over the past few decades, while international negotiations around data access and benefit-sharing have not kept pace.
The CBD and Plant Treaty have instruments that outline how biodiversity itself – plants, animals, microorganisms and more – is exchanged internationally. Whether or not these instruments should also govern information about this biodiversity (commonly called “Digital Sequence Information” [DSI], although this data includes far more than only genetic sequences) is now the major question, with diverse opinions from different sectors and regions of the world. Some are concerned that this data will eventually become so powerful that the physical biodiversity itself will no longer be as essential to science, in turn diminishing the potency of existing Treaties.
Equity in Digital Sequence Information (DSI)
Eric Bishop von Wettberg, Associate Professor at the University of Vermont and co-editor of the special issue, says the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of access to genetic data, with vaccine development having been facilitated by the rapid availability of genomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2.
On the other hand, Dr. Bishop von Wettberg notes that in many cases there is unequal access and benefit sharing regarding the fruits of biodiversity information, saying: “Access to DSI and the tools needed to harness it are very unequally distributed globally, as many researchers in regions with rich biodiversity in the Global South don’t have the tools or infrastructure already common in the Global North.”
“I believe that open access to data facilitates and supports innovative research, and that this research is most impactful if its benefits are equitably shared,” he said, “A nuanced governance approach is needed that does not inhibit scientific inquiry and innovation, but also does not leave benefits unequally shared.”
Bishop von Wettberg says the special issue was created to bring together a range of evidence, perspectives, and opinions to facilitate informed discussion.
“My primary hope is that the special issue brings the important issues regarding access and benefit sharing of biodiversity information to the attention of a far greater range of scientists and policy makers,” he said, “This topic has not received widespread attention, particularly from many agricultural researchers, despite the fact that are actively creating, sharing, and using DSI.”
Exit or Evolution?
Michael Halewood, Leader of the Genetic Resources and Seed Systems Policy group at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, said the agendas of international fora dealing with conservation and use of biodiversity have been overtaken by demands from developing countries to develop new norms for sharing commercial benefits derived from the use of DSI.
“Until some sort of agreement is reached —to at least start a formal process of negotiating new norms — it seems highly unlikely that those bodies will be able to make significant progress on other issues,” Halewood said, adding that the biggest issue at stake is the CBD’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which is slated for adoption at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties in China in May 2022.
Halewood says the Governing Body of the Plant Treaty could offer an example solution to the other treaties’ impasses.
“The Plant Treaty’s multilateral system of access and benefit sharing provides a basic infrastructure that can be extended to promote benefit sharing from use of DSI, particularly if the Plant Treaty contracting parties agree in 2022 to relaunch suspended negotiations,” he said, adding that while the Plant Treaty is limited in scope compared to the CBD, it should serve as a precedent that could be emulated by the larger biodiversity agreement.
While major roadblocks currently exist in these international treaties, the editors of the special issue are hopeful that a path will be cleared that will serve global food security and biodiversity conservation goals. Drawing from common themes found across the newly published articles, the way forward will necessitate clarifying the definition and scope of DSI (biodiversity data) that might be negotiated in the international treaties, maximizing access and rapid exchange of this data, and strengthening mechanisms so that benefits are more widely realized.