Ten years of Nagoya Protocol
The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity has been in force for ten years. Here is an overview of the history of the agreement and an interview with BRAIN employee Dr. Dirk Sombroek on the significance of the agreement for biotechnology companies like BRAIN.
The official protection of biodiversity in the industrial age started in 1992 in Brazil: The world's most comprehensive agreement on biological diversity, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), was drawn up with three goals in mind. One of these was to conserve biological diversity. The two other objectives: sustainable use of biological diversity and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.
The CBD was one of a total of three agreements under international law that were open for signature at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. The Convention entered into force under international law at the end of 1993; Germany declared itself a Party the following year.
Rules for access and benefit-sharing
Based on the CBD, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity then adopted the Nagoya Protocol in 2010. Among other things, this protocol agreed internationally binding regulations on access to genetic resources and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from their use. The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) called the Nagoya Protocol an action-oriented strategic plan for business and industry, inter alia, and an "instrument for international nature conservation".
The Nagoya Protocol is based on the principles of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS); according to this, genetic resources are subject to the national sovereign rights of the resource states. By signing the agreement, these states receive the authority to make access to their genetic resources conditional on their consent and to demand the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their utilization (benefit sharing).
“The Nagoya Protocol provides an international framework for access to genetic resources and related traditional knowledge, benefit-sharing, and user compliance regimes.”
At the EU level, a voluntary commitment to biodiversity conservation also emerged in May 2020 in the form of the "EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030". This includes, among other things, the goal to provide for fair and equitable shares of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources related to biodiversity.
The value of biodiversity
The CBD targets to protect biodiversity were supposed to be achieved by 2020. However, according to the recently published report "Doing business in harmony with nature", a cooperation arrangement between the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), most of these targets have not been met. The authors see "poor national implementation, a lack of needs-based funding, and insufficient incentives to address the economic causes of biodiversity loss" as the reasons.
Yet, according to the NABU-BCG report, biodiversity provides more than USD 170 trillion in ecosystem services annually – in addition to its intrinsic value! So preserving biodiversity has direct economic benefits for many sectors of the economy. It is therefore logical that the authors advocate effectively countering biodiversity loss for ecological and economic reasons and, in doing so, making the economy more accountable in the future.
Collections of microorganisms and natural substances are important suppliers of genetic resources. At BRAIN, such a collection, the BRAIN BioArchive, is the basis for the many innovative products and solutions for industry. What does the Nagoya Protocol mean for a biotech company like BRAIN?
Dirk Sombroek: With the Nagoya Protocol, the international community aims, roughly speaking, to prevent biopiracy. Access to genetic resources is regulated and there is to be a fair distribution of profits from the use of these resources. This concerns, for example, the protection of habitats for animals and humans, but also the fact that indigenous peoples benefit when companies from industrialized countries make use of their traditional knowledge in new developments.
More than a hundred countries have ratified the Nagoya Protocol, including Germany. That is why we at BRAIN naturally adhere to the agreement. We are always aware of our responsibility arising from the Nagoya Protocol in our work. Incidentally, the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) audits compliance with the Nagoya Protocol in Germany in accordance with Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014 and has also already "scrutinized" BRAIN AG accordingly – so far without any complaints.
What exactly belongs to "genetic resources"?
Dirk Sombroek: By definition, genetic resources include material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin that contains functional hereditary units. We work with precisely such resources when we isolate and analyze, for example, microorganisms from rock and soil samples or natural products from plant materials.
What about yeast cells used for brewing beer, for example? Do they also fall under the Nagoya Protocol? And what about human genetic resources?
Dirk Sombroek: Brewing beer also falls under the term "biotechnology," but only as part of the brewing process. As long as the genetic resource "yeast fungus" is not the subject of research and development work in the process, it is not considered a use within the meaning of the Nagoya Protocol.
Human genetic resources do not fall within the scope of the agreement, and the handling of seeds and pandemic influenza viruses is also regulated elsewhere. These resources have separate guidelines that govern their use.
The Nagoya Protocol is now ten years old. Over the past decade, new technologies and new discoveries in research have brought to light other potential types of genetic resources that no one thought of at the time. Does the Nagoya Protocol need to be adapted?
Dirk Sombroek: The assessment of, for example, digital gene sequence information or human gut/skin microbiomes in terms of Nagoya is indeed difficult, I think adjustments need to be made here in the future in the definition of genetic resources. But a directive revised by the EU is already said to be on its way.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Personal details: Dr. Dirk Sombroek has been working at BRAIN AG since 2010 and has been Head of the Technology Unit BioActives & Performance Biologicals since 2019.
Sources (retrieved on 7 December 2020):
Website Convention on biological diversity, CBS: www.cbd.int
The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing: www.cbd.int/abs/
The Biodiversity Imperative for Business. Joint study by NABU (BirdLife Partner in Germany) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG): www.nabu.de/imperia/md/content/nabude/biodiv/200923-nabu-bcg-studie-biodiv-englisch2.pdf
EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/actions-being-taken-eu/eu-biodiversity-strategy-2030_en