Controversy over genetic resources at the World Conference on Nature in Montréal – Knowledge

The World Conference on Nature aims to reach a global agreement to turn the planet’s ecological crisis around by 2030. Negotiate from Wednesday night in Montreal almost 200 nations, almost every country in the world. Whether they can agree on a “Montréal Agreement” that could be as important for the protection of animals, plants and habitats as the Paris Agreement was for climate protection depends on many details.

An example: access to international databases in which information is stored, among other things, about the genetic makeup of animals and plants. Above all, poorer countries with great biodiversity, which are natural and protection of species cannot afford it themselves and are disappointed with the meager financial support of the industrialized countries, are demanding that access to this “digital sequence information” (DSI) be restricted.

They criticize that the countries from which this information comes do not receive any financial compensation, although DSI are also used commercially: for example in the development of medicines, cosmetics and chemicals. Some make their acceptance of the Montréal Accords conditional on the data no longer being publicly available. They demand that every country control access to its DSI itself and charge fees for use. Such rules have applied to biological material since 2014. But is this also possible for digital information?

The data can also be used to track how endangered species are faring

“The origin of digital sequence information is far more difficult to trace than the origin of physical samples of animal or plant origin,” British moral philosopher Doris Schroeder recently told the Science Media Center (SMC). Researchers, especially those who deal with biodiversity, even see the future of their work in danger if access to this information, which has previously been freely accessible worldwide, is restricted. “Digital sequence information is an indispensable prerequisite for modern life science research and development,” said Jörg Overmann from the Leibniz Institute German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures in Braunschweig to the SMC. Among other things, they are used to identify new species and are important for monitoring projects that investigate whether a species threatened with extinction is recovering or is continuing to decline. They are also essential for “the reliable diagnosis of diseases”.

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According to Doris Schroeder, digital sequence information is important for environmental protection and species protection: “Which animals were at this waterhole and in what number? You don’t have to have seen the waterhole to be able to carry out this research on another continent. That is very positive,” she says. But the moral philosopher also sees that “possible injustices” can occur “if digital sequence information is used commercially and across national borders”.

A possible solution to the conflict would be to keep access to DSI freely accessible, but to charge for commercial use. A team led by Amber Hartmann Scholz, who, like Overmann, conducts research at the Leibniz Institute in Braunschweig, recently made a suggestion as to how this could be organised. The idea is to set up a fund for the research and protection of biodiversity, into which fees for the commercial use of digital sequence information flow. Countries that make DSI available could then receive financial compensation from this fund – and immediately invest in species protection again.

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