Anyone showing up to the United Nations biodiversity conference, known as COP15, will discover it takes time just getting in the door.
Having first shown proof of vaccination in order to obtain a conference badge, the would-be attendee is then handed a box of KN95 masks and a two-week supply of COVID-19 test kits. The next stop is to show a negative result from a rapid test before being admitted.
For the thousands of participants, it’s a fitting reminder that the pandemic is still with us – fitting because global pandemics are a risk we all face when wildlife is destroyed or harvested in ways that expose humans to the viruses of other species.
But there is another way that the pandemic reveals what is at stake as countries work toward a pact to protect nature for future generations.
The vaccines that helped to make the meeting possible were developed using the RNA sequence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Other forms of genetic information could lead to new antibiotics or improved crop yields. Ultimately, this type of molecular data is a product of the environment. Should some of the wealth that it generates be diverted back toward keeping the environment in tact?
Observers say the answer to that question could become a make-or-break issue that determines the success of COP15.
To understand why, consider that biodiversity is simply genetics by another name. While the protection of nature is often framed in terms of species and ecosystems, both can be thought of as vast networks of genes that are interacting with each other and with the environment in the complex dance known as biological evolution.
Countries with high biodiversity thus have a high share of the genetic wealth of the planet, and might rightly wonder what that is worth. This is highly relevant at COP15, where one of the biggest issues at play is how global conservation is supposed to be financed.
“It’s been huge in the negotiations, especially for those from the global south where the genetic resources are,” said Kina Murphy, a conservation biologist with the Campaign for Nature.
A key goal of the campaign is promoting the target of preserving 30 per cent of the planet for nature by 2030, which scientists have calculated would improve protection for about 60 per cent of all species and the genetic diversity they represent.
Pierre Du Plessis, a Namibia-based policy expert working with a delegation of African countries at COP15, said that sharing the benefits that flow from that genetic wealth is essential for conservation at the local level “because if you do benefit sharing, then there’s an economic rationale for sustainable use.”
Mr. Du Plessis was among those who negotiated the Nagoya Protocol, adopted in 2010 and ratified by 137 countries (Canada is not a signatory).
The protocol provides for agreements between countries where genetic material is found, and those where the material is used to generate knowledge and, potentially, commercial gain.
The problem is that technology has now outpaced it.
“It’s kind of a protocol for analogue times,” said David Castle, a professor of science and technology policy at the University of Victoria and a member of the Canadian delegation at COP15. “Now we’re in the digital era.”
The Nagoya Protocol relates to genetic material that can be physically transported, such as a plant specimen or a soil sample containing microbes. It does not include genetic sequencing information in digital form. This has put the protocol at a crossroads, since it is now possible, in theory, to step into a forest and sequence the genome of an organism with a handheld device and then upload it to the cloud via satellite link without ever having to transport anything physical.
More broadly, the sheer volume of genetic information that is now being sequenced makes it even harder to track and attribute to any one place, particularly when it comes to microbial species that may be found in multiple countries or continents.
Researchers worry that restrictions on access to genetic information will inhibit discoveries that could benefit all humans. Such controls are anathema to the goal of open science, which seeks to make data more accessible to all.
Nevertheless, an agreement that takes account of digital sequencing information, or DSI, has become a must for African countries participating in negotiations for a global biodiversity framework at COP15, Mr. Du Plessis said.
Whatever else is in the framework, he said, “if there is not a solution for sharing the benefits of DSI we are not accepting it.”
Opinions differ on how the matter is to be resolved. As negotiations commenced in Montreal this week at least six proposals were on the table. Some include the kind of bilateral arrangements between countries agreed to in the Nagoya Protocol.
In contrast, Namibia has championed a system that would impose a 1-per-cent levy at the retail level on all products that flow from the use of genetic resources, from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics. The money gathered would then be distributed to conservation projects around the world.
One key advantage of such a multilateral scheme is that it means access to digital genomes would be “decoupled from the benefits,” said Joerg Overmann, a microbiologist and an observer at COP15 for the German research foundation DFG.
In other words, a multilateral approach would leave scientists free to do their work cataloguing and exploring the genetic diversity of the planet – a pursuit that is seen as important for understanding the very thing the biodiversity convention is meant to protect – while benefits are collected and distributed through a separate mechanism.
However the matter is decided at COP15, it’s clear it will not be the last word on genes and their impact on conservation. At a news briefing and a separate session on Friday, experts raised their concerns about the prospect of synthetic biology and gene editing altering the genetic makeup of the biosphere with unforeseen consequences.
Even as conservationists work to bring the genetic wealth of the planet into focus, the prospect of tailoring it to suit commercial interests may prove increasingly difficult to resist.