Convention on Biological Diversity
Biodiversity includes the entire range of biological variation–molecules, organisms, species, communities, and biomes. Biodiversity may be studied at different levels: gene, population, species, and habitat. There is an increasing realization that, as a direct result of human activity, habitats and species are being lost at an accelerating rate world wide. Correspondingly, there is an increasing realization that human beings need to do something urgently in order to protect, conserve and wisely use what is left of the amazing diversity of life on earth. Nations signed the Convention on Biodiversity in 1992 in order to make this happen.
The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is an international treaty that was drawn up in Rio de Janeiro at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit 1992). Recognizing the multifarious ways in which diversity of organisms is important to the very fabric of the living world, the objectives of the convention include the following three major aims:
- The conservation of biodiversity
- Sustainable use of the components of biodiversity, and
- Sharing the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way
The Convention identifies the problem, lays out general goals and enables technical cooperation. The achievement of these goals is entirely in the hands of individual nations and their governments. It is recognized that most of the effect on biodiversity is from activities of private companies, landowners, fishermen, and farmers. These activities must be guided so as to conserve and sustainably use natural resources. This includes a range of issues, including fair and regulated access to genetic resources. Additionally, nations who are parties to the convention must commit to:
- Conduct surveys to inventory and identify biodiversity and ecosystems that have to be conserved and used sustainably
- Take conservation measures that also involve local peoples and communities
- Ensure monitoring and control of introduced alien species, as well as potential risks of biotechnologically modified organisms
- Educate people and promote public awareness of importance of biodiversity and its conservation
Nations that have ratified the convention or are otherwise parties to the protocol followed this initial meeting with others, ‘Conference of Parties‘ or COP 1-12, of which the last one was held in 2014. Several procedural and substantive decisions are taken at these meetings.
The United States of America signed the Convention, but did not ratify it (Congress did not approve it). This means that the US is not a party to the convention; only one other nation Holy See is a non-signatory.
Two issues are highly contentious: 1) Access to Genetic Resources , and 2) Biosafety Protocol. The main points of contention are intellectual property rights in the first issue, and the arguable safety of ‘Living Modified Organisms (LMO’s)’ and the need to use the precautionary principle in applications of modern biotechnological innovations in the second one.
Access to Genetic Resources
The issue of fair sharing of the benefits of commercial utilization of biodiversity (e.g., pharmaceutical products derived from plants) is at the crux of the biodiversity debate. Historically, developing nations, where much of the biodiversity is located, usually have not benefited from the commercialization of active principles in indigenous medicines that use local plants.The CBD seeks to ensure that future profits made through the exploitation of biodiversity will be shared with the nations where the organisms originated. This has led to the adoption of laws that seek to regulate access to genetic resources in nations such as Colombia and Brazil.
Access to genetic resources was negotiated in a much-lauded agreement in Costa Rica between Merck and The National Institute of Biodiversity (INBIO) (but see here). Access can also be an issue within nations, both developed and developing.
Farming is one of human activities that greatly affect biodiversity. This effect may occur through:
- Taking over of forest land and other natural areas for farming and grazing,
- Effects of pesticides and other chemicals on organisms in and around farms, and
- Potential effects of biotechnological modifications of crop plants (including introduction of engineered genes into local varieties of the crops and weeds through hybridization).
The third factor plays into concerns regarding biosafety and the need for caution while introducing biotechnologically engineered crops for commercial cultivation.
As a consequence, a subsidiary agreement, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, was adopted in 2000. By this, a participating government can communicate that it is, or is not, willing to allow imports of living modified organisms (LMO’s). Furthermore, LMO’s would have to be labeled as such. Implementation of these agreements should become possible soon (see here).
The US did not accept this subsidiary agreement, as it felt that such a such a step would interfere with its ability to trade in agricultural commodities.