by Tina Carmillia
Summary: Megadiverse countries are worried that commercially valuable DNA sequences stored digitally would allow access to anyone without needing physical access to the genetic resources. This could lead to biopiracy, where such information could be exploited without any benefits flowing back into the source country. The greatest fear, perhaps, is how these products could be commercialised, patented, then sold back to the original countries as food, drugs, or other necessities.
Since 1969, Tu Youyou, a chemist in China, collected 2,000 ancient remedies on the purported cure for malaria, a life-threatening disease caused by plasmodium. She discovered a possible active ingredient that looked to inhibit the plasmodium’s growth in animals. Since then, this semi-synthetic substance, artemisinin, has saved millions of lives. Traditional knowledge, access to genetic sequence information and synthetic biology made this possible; and for that, Tu Youyou was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Megadiverse countries harbour the highest density of the Earth’s species. A study supported by Conservation International identified 17 of such countries including Malaysia . Additionally, more than two-thirds of today’s indigenous populations live in Asia, according to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues .
For decades, scientists have warned that the cure for cancer, AIDS and many other diseases may be lost with deforestation in these areas, since traditional knowledge of local species will be affected by the displacement of indigenous people and more importantly, the species that might supply the cure might become extinct.
Meanwhile, the 13th conference of the parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2016 ended with negotiators agreeing to restore ecosystems, improve conservation and track biodiversity targets. The convention, which took place from the 4th to the 17th of December in Cancún, Mexico, saw the countries that are signatory parties to the convention commit in a Cancún Declaration to ‘work at all levels within our governments and across all sectors to mainstream biodiversity’. But what does that really mean?
While ‘mainstreaming’ may mean that biodiversity conservation finally gets the attention it needs, as negotiations progressed during the convention, disputes between parties emerged. The main issues stemmed from the intersections between defining what synthetic biology refers to, the use of digital sequence information, and determining access to traditional knowledge and benefit sharing.
A brief history
The CBD was adopted on 22nd of May 1992 . It is the only international treaty that promotes biodiversity conservation, and was signed by 196 countries  including Malaysia. Notably, the CBD was not signed by all countries, and the United States is perhaps the most glaring absentee.
There are two protocols in the CBD framework. The first is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which addresses the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms, and has 170 signatories.
The second protocol is the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS), which addresses the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources, and has 95 signatories.
The CBD’s Nagoya Protocol governs the interaction between genetic resource providers (eg. indigenous peoples or governments) and genetic resource users (eg. biotech companies or universities). Without this protocol, unscrupulous abuse could occur.
This concern stems from a long history of exploitation. For centuries, empires and wealthy families of adventurers, naturalists and businessmen collected samples from all over the world – often with the help of indigenous peoples. These samples would then be used to generate and commercialise useful materials, creating successful entrepreneurs, scientists and industries, but often without returning any benefits to the original users.
Critics of the protocol, however, find it a regulatory burden as it may cause problems when there is a need for rapid sharing of information, such as during the Ebola epidemic . They argue that the protocol is a disincentive to research and development.
Indigenous peoples and local communities
Proponents argue that ABS works with free prior informed consent being granted by a source provider to a user to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources and associated benefits. And yet, millions of indigenous peoples across the world are still evicted from their ancestral territories, as they become victims of ‘conservation’, and thus are unaware or unable to provide consent.
According to a 2012 study by the University of Maryland using Google Maps data, Malaysia had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world between 2000 and 2012 .
Additionally, the construction of the Bakun Dam for hydropower, which opened in 2011, saw the displacement of more than 9,000 indigenous peoples who inhabited the area in Sarawak. While the purpose of the dam was to meet growing demands for electricity, it mainly serves Peninsular Malaysia and not East Malaysia, where it is located despite concerns that the peninsula would have an oversupply of electricity . This occurrence is just one example among many.
Although indigenous peoples make up only five percent of the global population , their territories encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity , according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Additionally, meta-analysis published in Forest Ecology and Management showed that community managed forests experience lower annual deforestation rates than government-protected forests . It was therefore unsurprising when the World Bank published a study showing that indigenous peoples are key to preserving the world’s forests .
However, during the negotiations, indigenous peoples staged a walkout in protest over the proposed language to describe how they provide consent to the use of their knowledge, amid unease over ethical bioprospecting where traditional knowledge is used in the search for commercially valuable genetic resources.
Among the more contentious issues under negotiation was synthetic biology. Synbio, for short, can be used to generate genetic materials, biological systems, and living or nonliving organisms. The parties deliberated for days for a definition under the Convention that could be accepted by all.
Developed nations, including Canada and the European Union, supported by research institutions and industry players, also argued for the freedom of scientists to fully explore the potential of synbio, while many developing countries and NGOs raised concerns that “playing god” is playing with fire.
The megadiverse nations, which are mostly developing countries, feared that advancement in synbio techniques would result in the data being used by biotech firms to produce biological resources in labs without proper attribution, thereby denying them profit shares in research outcomes.
Discussions around synbio isn’t new to the CBD; it was a subject of debate for the past two to three meetings. But its concept is not an easy one to grasp, and as always, policymaking has to play catch-up with scientific developments.
While genetic engineering modifies existing cells by removing or adding one or a few genes, synbio’s genetic intervention is far greater–it puts together entirely new DNA sequences and even whole genomes, making it somewhat of a toolkit to create ‘genetic Frankensteins’.
One instance of its use is to create gene drives. Gene drives are self-replicating genetic elements that increase in prevalence in a population, possibly leading to the complete eradication or alteration of an entire species. An example of a gene drive is the introduction of female sterility into disease-carrying mosquitoes that would be passed onto future generations to thereby reduce the population.
During this meeting, the parties finally adopted a more prudent decision on this topic, by inviting governments to take a precautionary approach, while saying that current risks assessment methods may need to be updated for future synbio applications .
Digital sequence information
Negotiations over digital sequence information on genetic resources also invited heated debates. Digital sequence information may be used as a basis for synthetic biology applications. Given that much of this information is already in the public domain, it creates a quandary for the implementation and enforcement of the ABS.
During negotiations, the developing world expressed a desire for the ABS protocol to be amended to include digital gene data available on the Internet. Brazil and Malaysia led the argument in highlighting that digital sequence information cannot be treated separate from original species, therefore similar rules should apply to both. Meanwhile, some nations held claim that the CBD and its Nagoya Protocol apply only to physical material and not its digital information.
Digitally stored information also allows for online biopiracy and thus, the exploitive use of such information. Genetic resources can easily be transferred digitally and synthesised, without physical exchange of the original material. After all, such resources are only valuable because of the information they encode.
In their final decision, the parties agreed that the CBD should seek views, commission research and set up an expert group , which is expected to report in time for the parties to make an informed decision in two year’s time when they meet again at the next convention in Egypt in 2018.
About the Author:
Tina Carmillia is a journalist and radio producer with a special focus on science, health and environment reporting. She studied in Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaya and has conducted research on insectivorous bats and urban primates. Find out more about Tina by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/tinacarmillia/.
Note: Reporting for this story was supported by a media fellowship by the Earth Journalism Network.
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