Wildlife & Biodiversity

Lateral Thoughts: Will benefits from genetic resources ever reach communities? 

Consensus on access and benefit sharing on genetic resources continues to be elusive   

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Tuesday 18 July 2023
The issue is of utmost importance as plant genetic resources for food and agriculture could provide a way to increase and diversify food production and also help to adapt to climate change in the future. Photo: iStock

Over the last two years, there have been extensive discussions around the concept of access and benefit sharing linked to genetic resources. This has been at the core of discussions under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Global Biodiversity Framework; World Health Organization’s Pandemic Treaty; the Agreement on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

Despite so much focus, there is very little progress on ensuring that communities benefit from the biodiversity that they have protected for centuries.

The subject was discussed again recently at the Ad Hoc Open Ended Working Group to Enhance the Functioning of the Multilateral System under ITPGRFA in Rome from July 12-14, 2023. 

The Working Group was established way back in 2013 when it was realised that the benefit-sharing component of the treaty was not working well. It is tasked to figure out ways to make the multilateral system of sharing plant genetic resources for food and agriculture work but, like many times earlier, the group failed to come to a consensus.

At the recent meeting, country representatives once again delved into contentious issues such as revision of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement; expansion of the list of crops in Annex I (at present, this has with 35 crop genera and 29 forage species); and implementation measures that include ways of sharing benefits from digital sequence information. 

A consensus has not been reached because of differences between the developed and the developing nations. Specifically, developed countries want easier access to an expanded list of resources while the developing countries want more money in exchange. 

The issue is of utmost importance as plant genetic resources for food and agriculture could provide a way to increase and diversify food production and also help to adapt to climate change in the future.

Other issues discussed at the meeting included whether the Plant Treaty should work on digital sequence information or merely rely on the system created by CBD to collect and distribute benefits from their use. 

At the Conference of Parties in 2022, CBD decided to establish a multilateral benefit-sharing mechanism for digital sequence information use, including a global fund and a time-bound process to undertake the mechanism’s development. 

It was felt that the treaty should manage benefits on its own as a system for access and benefit sharing under the Treaty would be less complicated than under the CBD. This is because the Treaty’s scope is limited to genetic resources linked to breeding, research and training for food and agriculture. 

The Plant Treaty too has a multilateral system for ensuring members have access to a pre-specified list of genetic resources as well as a system to ensure benefits accrued from this access is shared with the community. It is the only operational multilateral benefit-sharing mechanism till date.

Discussions also touched upon the role of intellectual property rights, which pose a barrier to access. Over the years, it has been observed that developed countries have more research and development capacities and prefer to have an uninhibited access to resources but are not very willing to share the benefits. 

The developing countries want the issue of benefit sharing to be resolved before expansion of the list is agreed on. Developing countries also pointed out that as genetic resources outside Annex I will fall under the terms of the CBD’s Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing, these can be negotiated there.

It was to ensure smooth sharing of resources while ensuring that communities that have conserved the resources also benefit that ITPGRFA came into force in 2004. This was the first meeting since the governing body meeting in 2022 re-established the Working Group after it stopped meeting in 2019. 

The discussions by the working group would guide the governing body 10 scheduled to meet in November 2023 to take decisions on the continuation of negotiations, including the timeline and budget. The final decision on this issue has to be taken at the governing body meeting scheduled in 2025.

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