The United Nations policy on access and benefit sharing was designed – almost 30 years ago – mostly to deal with physical specimens through bio-prospecting and to prevent bio-piracy, an example of which is the case of the Hoodia plant (pictured).
The global policy that governs access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits derived from them – which is now almost 30 years old – needs to be rethought. That is according to the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Rachel Wynberg, who holds the Department of Science and Innovation/National Research Foundation South African Research Chair on the environmental and social dimensions of the bio-economy.
Wynberg explains the importance of equitably sharing the benefits of science and technology but also the unintended negative consequences of expanding this approach across multiple United Nations (UN) fora.
What is access and benefit sharing?
A new paper published in Science and co-authored by Wynberg (through a collaboration with People and Plants International, Griffith University in Australia and the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law) explains access and benefit sharing as an approach that bridges access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge with the sharing of benefits.
“The policy first found expression almost 30 years ago in the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD),” explains Wynberg. “Back then, mobile phones weren’t even in widespread use, and modern biotechnology was in its infancy, so you can appreciate the extent to which policy is now having to play catch-up.
“The idea behind access and benefit sharing policy is laudable: it was created to try to harness the economic benefits of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge as a way to achieve economic and social justice, and to fund biodiversity conservation.
“The notion was that through sustainable use, incentives would be created to support biodiversity conservation – the so-called “use it or lose it” approach.
The idea had been that if there was commercial interest, then those using or providing the genetic resources would be motivated to protect it.
At the time, the policy was designed mostly to deal with physical specimens through bio-prospecting and to prevent bio-piracy, Wynberg explains. As an example, she describes the case of the bio-piracy of the Hoodia plant, a succulent that grows in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
“Hoodia was known to be used by indigenous San as an appetite and thirst suppressant while hunting,” she says.
“In the 1960s, the South African defence force studied it to try to isolate the active ingredients. But they weren’t successful. More than 40 years later, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research did further research and realised that hoodia might be marketable as an anti-obesity treatment. They patented the active ingredients without recognising San claim to the traditional knowledge and entered into commercial agreements with United Kingdom company Phytopharm and later the consumer giant Unilever.”
Following public pressure, the San Council of South Africa entered into an agreement with the research council for benefit sharing – although the project was later terminated due to potential health concerns associated with Hoodia use.
A calcified approach
Wynberg agrees with the aims of the CBD’s access and benefit sharing provisions, but she believes that the entire concept needs to be revisited – both to take into account technological changes and to ensure that its original intent is honoured.
“Although access and benefit sharing has encouraged more equitable research partnerships in certain cases, from early on it became clear that that commercial demand for genetic resources was insufficient to incentivise biodiversity conservation,” explains Wynberg. The idea had been that if there was commercial interest, then those using or providing the genetic resources would be motivated to protect it.
More recently, however, there have been growing concerns about how the policy approach of access and benefit sharing can deal with genetic sequencing data – such as DNA code – and its digitisation and curation on international databases.
“The CBD uses ‘digital sequence information’, itself a placeholder term, to refer to any digital genetic sequencing data. Many scientists around the world are concerned that trying to retrofit current access and benefit sharing policy to incorporate digital sequence information will become impossibly complex.”
“This leaves a massive loophole and may lead to researchers using digitised genetic resources as a means of sidestepping the obligation for benefit-sharing.”
As the Science paper describes it, policy for access and benefit sharing has been predicated on the idea that physical material is exchanged between users and that the ownership and provenance of this material is easily traceable. This is often not possible in the case of digital sequence information, making access and benefit sharing a poor vehicle for regulating access to such data.
In large part, this is because research practices and concepts of ethics and benefit sharing associated with digital sequence information have evolved in recent decades to focus on open access, transparency, networks and free exchange, says Wynberg.
“Access and benefit sharing on the other hand is bi-lateral, transactional and aims to restrict access to genetic resources as a way to ensure benefit sharing.” This runs counter to some open-access principles.
“If digital sequence information is left out of future policy, however, this leaves a massive loophole and may lead to researchers using digitised genetic resources as a means of sidestepping the obligation for benefit-sharing.”
Wynberg recognises that access and benefit sharing has proven to be an important home for questions of ethics and equity in genetic research and ownership but believes that such questions – around traditional knowledge, capacity building and technology transfer, for example – are ill-served under an environmental policy, such as the CBD.
“Decisions are made at CBD meetings that can have a big impact on research in fields far removed from biodiversity conservation.”
The Science paper also makes the point that despite the fact that access and benefit sharing faces many implementation challenges, it is increasingly being adopted as a policy approach within UN processes ranging from World Health Organization policy to the regulation of food and agriculture.
Wanted: a conservation-centred policy for the 21st century
According to Wynberg, policy on access and benefit sharing needs to be implemented to ensure that the bio-economy can be leveraged to ensure biodiversity conservation.
“We see little evidence of access and benefit sharing achieving its conservation goals.
“Even in South Africa, considered a leader on these issues, conservation is barely if ever present in the multiple benefit-sharing agreements that have been negotiated. The rooibos benefit-sharing agreement, for example, recently negotiated between traditional knowledge holders and the rooibos industry, completely ignores the fact the industry is located in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet – and one facing multiple extinctions.”
At the same time, it is unlikely that biodiversity conservation will be achieved by benefit-sharing measures alone.
It is unlikely that biodiversity conservation will be achieved by benefit-sharing measures alone.
Wynberg argues that digital sequence information could provide some benefits for conservation but will need to be delinked from access requirements to this material. Funding could be generated by taxes, levies or other approaches that feed into a global, multilateral fund. This would allow benefits to be secured without hindering the free flow of information. She emphasises, however, that the greatest destruction caused to biodiversity is from extractive industries, such as mining, logging and industrial agriculture, and they too should be required to pay into a global fund to curb biodiversity loss.
Wynberg argues that new policy approaches must include widespread engagement from the scientific community that it will affect, as well as a consideration of the founding principles underpinning the policy objectives of UN instruments.
According to her, this is an urgent matter. During the next year, decisions will be taken that may have longstanding and wide-reaching consequences. Wynberg believes the implication of these decisions have not been sufficiently thought through, but that this critical juncture remains an opportunity to improve global policy.
“If we are guided by principles of ethical research and open access, we can identify how a reimagined approach can contribute to better biodiversity conservation, social justice, equitable research and public health,” she says.
Laird S et al. (2020) Rethink the expansion of access and benefit sharing. Science 367(6483): 1200–1202. DOI: 10.1126/science.aba9609