[Commentary] CBD obstructs biological research that needs international collaboration

  • An international team of scientists working with biological sciences had recently written a Policy Forum paper in Science Magazine stating that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the national legislations that it has given rise to in multiple countries together are strangling cooperative international biological research.
  • When the legislations prevent scientists from doing the work that they were already doing, their research gets entangled with the interests of various pressure groups.
  • In this commentary, two of the lead authors of the Science paper argue the point that while synthetic biology is overtaking bioprospecting as a means of discovering new molecules, bona fide scientific research is suffering due to the legal restrictions.

“There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table;
what is national is no longer science.”
– Anton Chekhov

A leading taxonomist from one of India’s premier biodiversity research institutes recently wrote a post on Facebook: “We had multiple interface meets with NBA [National Biodiversity Authority of India, that regulates all access to biodiversity of the country] to break the ice … Though after multiple rejections for few years, we could convince them … It took almost three years for getting approvals and we all faced initial refusals …”

As in India, biodiversity researchers in several other countries, are a shackled lot. Any international collaboration involving exchange of specimens is viewed by the authorities as the vehicle of ‘biopiracy’ and is strictly regulated. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the resultant national legislations focus on the commercial value of biodiversity than its ecological and scientific value.

Establishment of sovereign rights over genetic resources through national legislations, as accorded by the CBD, undermines its transnational sharing and distribution. Evidently, for any society, the benefits of unbridled access to genetic resources far outweigh that of restricted access and benefit sharing. National legislations governing access to biodiversity often tend to be excessively restrictive and thus, even undermine the objectives of the CBD.

It was the conflict between the developed and the developing countries over the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement that led to the reinforcement of sovereign rights of nation states over their biological resources at the Earth Summit in 1992. The presumption that the national ownership could be used to thwart the GATT-WTO-IPR regime, that heavily favors the multinational corporations of the developed countries, which ruthlessly usurp the biological riches of the developing nations, lead to the adoption of the ‘sovereign right strategy’ by the latter in the CBD. This tussle over commercial value of genetic resources eclipsed biodiversity conservation – the prime objective of the CBD.

The CBD entrusted its 196 nation parties to enact legislations for conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing, the three major objectives of the CBD. The last of these three objectives was further codified in the Convention’s 2010 Nagoya Protocol (NP), which came into effect on October 12 2014. About 100 countries have already enacted, or are now considering, laws to implement the objectives of the CBD.

Conservation scientists involved with collecting, identifying samples collected from forests such as these and collaborating with institutions outside the country find the provisions of the Biodiversity Act hampering research. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

Conservation scientists have no heft with public policy

However, the national laws sanctioned by the CBD are largely focused on sharing of commercial benefits derived from genetic resources, through the access and benefit-sharing (ABS) regimes, in addition to regulation of access by scientists. Taken together, the results have often been a de facto clamp down on all access to biodiversity by scientists, even leading to the prosecution of researchers, sometimes for laughable “offences”.

One of the more sublime cases was that of Damian Goodall, the amphibian and reptile curator of the Melbourne Zoo, who found a toad in the saltwater swimming pool of his resort while on a holiday in Sri Lanka, rescued it (amphibians cannot live in saltwater) and placed it in a bucket of freshwater to rehydrate. He was arrested for accessing and collecting biodiversity without a permit, fined and summarily deported.

The problems arises when countries with limited capacity to formulate enabling legislation, most of whom are also victims of disabling colonial rule, seek to draft regulations that enable their scientists to do the things they were already doing but need to now, be governed by legislation. The process of drafting such legislation then becomes mixed up with the agendas of numerous often well-meaning pressure groups with little interest in, and often plain contempt for, science: e.g., anti-globalization, anti-colonial, animal rights and nature-‘protection’ (as opposed to ‘conservation’). For their part, conservation biologists and taxonomists, of whom there is in any case only a handful in each concerned country, carry negligible heft in influencing public policy.

Quality taxonomic research requires collaborations

India enacted the Biological Diversity Act in 2002, the Biological Diversity Rules in 2004 and established the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) for their implementation. Section 3 (1) of the Act stipulates that “No person (who is not a resident citizen of India) shall, without previous approval of the National Biodiversity Authority, obtain any biological resource occurring in India or knowledge associated thereto for research or commercial utilisation or for bio-survey and bio-utilisation.”

However, as the NBA began implementing the law, it soon realised the impracticality of this section, as all commercially important biological materials are traded commodities, regularly exported from India on a massive scale. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued notifications excluding all normally traded species from the ambit of the law and shifted its focus to regulation of non-commercial biological samples, often informally exchanged in trivial quantities, amongst the international scientific fraternity.

Quality taxonomic research requires extensive collaboration and cooperation between specialists and institutions across continents as the type specimens – the authentic voucher specimens based on which a species is described – may be held in museums in different continents. Species and genera with extensive geographical distribution, breaching political boundaries of nation states, make biological systematics truly international in theory and practice.

It is generally accepted among the science community that the types are the property of science and should be made available to bona fide researchers on request. Taxonomists throughout the world depend on loan and exchange of specimens to pursue their studies and international museums and institutions generously loan type specimens to them. Any legal or bureaucratic restrictions on this great service offered by international institutes would totally disrupt quality taxonomic studies.

For exchange of specimens, inevitable for taxonomic studies, a scientist has to obtain permissions from the NBA, which is a nearly impossible task as indicated by the Facebook post quoted at the start. For collection of specimens, local biodiversity communities to state biodiversity boards, in many states, are imposing restrictions. The scientist from the premier national institution, mentioned at the outset, could get the permission only after the entire staff, including the director, worked towards it.

However, most taxonomists, working in isolated universities, have withdrawn into their shell, knowing very well that it is nearly impossible for them to establish meaningful international collaborations, legally.

Taxonomical research often needs international cooperation, which the Biodiversity Act impedes. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

Life was meant to spread across continents

Life originated from a single ancestor, that, over millennia, evolved into plants, animals and other myriad organisms which today occupy all imaginable habitats on earth. Organisms – whether plants or animals – differ from the non-living entities by their ability to reproduce and perpetuate. Thus, non-living resources such as coal or oil are limited in nature while biological resources can be multiplied infinitely. This makes biological resources truly renewable and non-rival as their use in a given locality is independent of uses elsewhere.

Exchange and spread of crops and livestock across nations and continents further enhance their conservation and diversification. Humans carried and shared their plants, animals and knowledge throughout migrations and invasions for own survival in the unfamiliar territories, thus making Homo sapiens the most wide-spread species on Earth.

No country is self-sufficient vis-à-vis genetic resources as crop plants originated in different continents. All nations of the world are linked in a complex network of genetic dependence for their very existence. Humans, being a single species, share identical nutritional, physiological and ecological requirements. Biological diversity, by origin and nature, is a common heritage of mankind and species never respect political boundaries. Absolute interdependence and the renewable nature of the genetic resources make it inevitable to retain and safeguard biodiversity as our common heritage.

The hype accompanying the ratification of the CBD inspired many biodiverse nations to entertain unrealistic expectations regarding the commercial value of their native species. It is true that several important medicines have been derived from plants. Charismatic examples include the anti-malarial drugs quinine and artemisinin, the antineoplastic vincristine, or the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel. Animal sources are less common, but include the antiviral acyclovir and the analgesic ziconotide.

Potato, which is now grown and eaten all over the world, originated from the Andes mountains of South America. Photo by Scott Bauer/Wikimedia Commons.

Very few examples of ABS

Many genetic resources, however, represent wide-ranging species over which national ownership is impossible to assert. Although it is worthwhile to continue investigating natural products used as medicines by rural and indigenous people, the Nagoya Protocol is clearly an example of “overkill” in seeking to foster such discoveries. For example, one widely-publicised assessment which, though misleading, captured both the public imagination and the attention of governments, estimated that “11 of the top 25 best-selling pharmaceutical products are entities derived from natural products… Worldwide sales of these eleven products have reached about US$18 billion annually”.

These “natural products”, however, were ubiquitous organisms over which sovereign ownership or community interest could not be reasonably or practically asserted. Eight of them are derived from fungi commonly occurring in soil or similar environments and two are obtained from genetically-engineered bacteria or ovarian cells. Few pause to reflect that high-throughput screening, combinatorial chemistry and other advanced methodologies have largely replaced the role of natural products in new drug discoveries.

A quarter of a century has passed since the CBD was signed; however, examples of financially significant ABS agreements are scarce. What are often mentioned are marginal arrangements such as in the Cook Islands, the Merck case in Costa Rica and the now discredited case of Kani-Trichopus from India.

Such benefit-sharing initiatives have yielded scant benefits. Even as many drug manufacturers abandon bioprospecting for the development of new drugs, it has been suggested that governments should subsidise bioprospecting to combat drug-resistant infectious diseases. While it is not possible for chemists to imagine the huge variety of unusual and unexpected molecules that occur in nature, synthetic biology has become a more useful and immediate means of discovering molecules for developing new drugs, making physical access to biological material less relevant.

Despite the relatively slim prospects of substantial benefits from granting commercial access to biodiversity and associated genetic resources, many countries have almost completely blocked bona fide scientific research on biodiversity.

There are not many examples of ABS and indigenous tribes such as the Todas of the Nilgiris have not benefitted from its provisions. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

The urgency of the task

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that about one-fifth (20 percent) of the groups of organisms for which conservation assessments have been made are in danger of extinction over the next decade or two. Furthermore, it is possible that up to half of all existing species may become extinct over the next 65 years approximately. Many biologists have concluded that we have entered what will amount to the sixth great extinction event since the origin of life on Earth, the last one having taken place at the end of the Cretaceous Period some 65 million years ago. We cannot conserve biodiversity without describing and cataloguing its constituent species and ecosystems; assessing and mitigating threats; sustainably using genetic resources based on their accurate assessment; and fostering collaborations for research and collective action relevant to conservation of species and ecosystems.

A major problem is that we know very little about life on Earth. Excluding bacteria, for which rational estimates of species numbers are impossible based on our current level of knowledge and extending what we know of a few groups, such as vertebrates, plants and butterflies, it is likely that there are as many as approximately 8.7 million plus or minus 1.3 million species of eukaryotic organisms – animals, plants, fungi, and protists – in existence.

Approximately two million of these are named. But even for these two million named species, we know very little about their distributions, abundances, reactions to change in their habitats and the threats that affect them. Such information is vital if we hope to manage and conserve majority of life on the planet and often a name is the first step in this process.

About a quarter of all tropical forests have been cleared since the adoption of the CBD in 1992 and the pace of destruction increases year by year. When a tropical rainforest is cleared, perhaps 19 out of 20 kinds of organisms in it go extinct even before earning a name. Yet, the regulatory regimes inspired by the CBD and its Nagoya Protocol have inhibited and slowed the processes of research and discovery, even though we may be the last generation able to document the existence of many of these species.

The diversity of life is still being discovered in some locations such as the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Photo by Gaurav Agavekar.

Impediments to research

The principal victims of the CBD and the resultant national legislative actions are biological inventories that include taxonomy as the core of international collaboration in biological sciences. Although the importance of biological inventories and taxonomy is widely appreciated, for most nations, including those with the largest numbers of species, the cataloguing of species has scarcely begun.

Moreover, the limited efforts to develop inventories are constrained by lack of international collaboration in biodiversity science, brought about by unrealistic expectations of major commercial benefits and fears of biopiracy that the Convention and its various protocols have generated. For example, the Guidelines on Access to Biological Resources and Associated Knowledge and Benefits Sharing Regulations, 2014, enacted by the National Biodiversity Authority of India have imposed stringent restrictions on indispensable international collaborations, making even exchange and deposition of specimens in international repositories impossible.

Hence it is time for a global action to cut through the red tape that separates scientists from the biodiversity they strive to discover, describe and conserve. The CBD should proactively engage with national governments to create an environment conducive to advancing research in taxonomy, assessment and monitoring of biodiversity, and strengthening the institutions and policies relevant to biodiversity conservation in order to achieve the broader goals of the Convention.

One possible course of action for the Conference of Parties to the CBD might be to have an explicit treaty or protocol to promote biodiversity research, conservation and international collaboration. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which ensures accessibility of genetic resources of essential food and fodder crops to all in the public domain, may form a model for access to biological material for non-commercial research.

The CBD should devise a protocol to promote biodiversity research, similar to how agricultural biodiversity is conserved under the ITPGRFA at the ICRISAT genebank. Photo by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.


[Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan is senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and K. Divakaran Prathapan is a faculty member at the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU). They were part of the lead authors of a Policy Forum paper in Science Magazine, where they had argued that the CBD is detrimental to taxonomic research].


Read a counterview by Balakrishna Pisupati, an international negotiator and former chairperson of India’s National Biodiversity Board: [Commentary] CBD: Can the cure kill?

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