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Rich nations block biodiversity negotiations in Cancun

The 17 major biodiversity-rich countries of the world, including India, have blocked the move of developed countries to continue the commercial use of digitally available genetic sequence data of plants and animals from developing nations without sharing the benefits with the source countries.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2016 14:26 IST
Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Several gene sequencing projects are coming up across the world that are storing commercially valuable gene sequence information in online databases.
Several gene sequencing projects are coming up across the world that are storing commercially valuable gene sequence information in online databases.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A move of the world’s 17 major biodiversity-rich countries, including India, to seek profits from commercial use of online genetic data of plants and animals by the rich nations has been blocked by the latter in the ongoing negotiations in Cancun.

The rich nations have opposed the demand of the countries having majority of globe’s biological resources used for medical and other purposes, on the ground that the data was a free resource available on internet for all.

About 190 countries had agreed to an Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) regime in 2010 under which the rich countries were to share profits from commercial use of a natural resources like plants or animals with the developing country, from where it has been sourced.

The regime, however, did not cover the use of genetic sequence of same plant or animal stored digitally online. Most researchers provide the genetic sequence in papers available online.

In the ongoing negotiations under the United Nation’s Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) aimed at equitable sharing of benefits, the developing world wants a change in the ABS rule to include digital gene data available on internet.

This would have increased the ABS ambit as majority of genetic resources used by biotech companies and scientists from the developed world are digitally stored on internet, meaning more money flowing from rich nations to the developing world for conserving biodiversity in future.

“A large amount of genetic material (DNA sequence) based information is available in many publicly available databases. But, there are no guidelines on use of the information in the context of ABS. With advances in genetic engineering, bioinformatics, synthetic biology based technologies, there is a potential to use this information for commercial purposes,” said Balakrishna Pisupati, head of biodiversity wing of the United Nations Environment Programme and previously head of India’s National Biodiversity Authority.

The mega diverse nations, which are mostly developing countries, made the proposal as they feared that with advancement of genetic technologies, the data can be used by biotech firms to develop their biological resources in labs, thereby denying them sharing of profits.

But, the proposal was opposed by Canada and European Union on the ground that the online gene information should remain open and free for all.

The group of Mega diverse countries, led by Brazil and Malasiya, countered by saying the gene sequence information cannot be treated separate from the original trees or plants and the ABS rules should apply to both. They also said if the data is not covered, the concept of ABS might be rendered obsolete.

India supported the position.

As the logjam continued, an expert group is expected to be constituted to examine the issue.

What is ABS?

A global mechanism allowing biotech companies to use biological genetic resources in the developing world for commercial purpose and share profit with the source nation

How does it work?

ABS works on prior informed consent (PIC) being granted by a provider to a user to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources and associated benefits.

Who gives permission?

The permission to grant by Competent National Authorities (CNAs), which in case of India is National Biodiversity Authority.