Hot Topics at the 13th Meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity

During the first two weeks in December, Rosa and I attended the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun Mexico. This also included meetings on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

Decisions at these meetings are made by consensus and with over 190 countries signatory to the CBD, that means long and difficult negotiations in which the final result is usually a heavy compromise in which the best that can often be hoped for is that all parties are ‘equally unhappy’ with the results.

This year, the meeting had the tagline of “Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being” and indeed the concept of mainstreaming biodiversity was very prevalent. It took quite a while to make sense of this idea and what it was being used to imply. Officially, the idea seems to mean that because a vast range of human activities affect biodiversity and financial support for its conservation is waning, there is a need to embed the work across all sectors and policies. What I also noticed though was that significant emphasis was being placed on how to use the current economic system to support biodiversity conservation. In that sense, it felt like how to move biodiversity conservation into the mainstream capitalist economic agenda.

In addition to the idea of mainstreaming, some of the hot topics of debate that I followed during the meeting were:

Guidance on Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Organisms (or Living Modified Organisms as they are referred to under the Cartagena Protocol)

Here the focus of the debate was largely around whether to extend the work of Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) and develop additional guidance for new applications, such as GM fish and synthetic biology. The AHTEG has spent over 5 years developing a guidance document for risk assessment of GMOs and the quality of its work was heavily disputed at the meeting. This debate was intensified by the fact that the guidance was published before the parties had agreed to endorse it. Some parties were extremely angry about this and against even acknowledging the guidance as a useful document. They were therefore certainly not willing to support any extension of the current AHTEG or its mandate. In the end it was agreed that the current AHTEG would be dissolved but an online forum and alternative process for gathering information on the information gaps and needs for further guidance would be put in place.

Synthetic Biology, and particularly Gene Drives

Much of the work leading up to this meeting related to synthetic biology had been around the development of a definition. While a definition was ultimately adopted that supported synthetic biology as an extension and acceleration of modern biotechnology, debate remained over whether the definitional work should continue in an intersessional AHTEG, specifically to develop inclusion and exclusion criteria. Some parties felt that this was necessary to clarify the concept, while others felt it was simply a delaying tactic to avoid the much needed work on risk assessment guidance and criteria. Ultimately it was decided that the AHTEG on synthetic biology would continue and have a mandate to discuss, among other things, inclusion and exclusion criteria for the definition. Under synthetic biology, the topic of gene drives was also an extremely hot issue of debate. Civil society organisations attending the meeting had called for a moratorium on gene drives until effective biocontainment and regulatory processes could be put in place. Meanwhile, organisations and industry supportive of biotechnology development were present in force (including sponsoring at least 35 students to be present at all discussions and side events concerning synthetic biology, gene drives and/or biosafety and loudly express their positive positions towards the technology). This generated quite a lot of tension and heated debates within these side events and caused one of the most prominent proponents to be ejected from the meeting for aggressive and threatening behavior.

Benefit Sharing of Digitalized Genetic Sequence Information

Another hot issue was how the rapid development of digitalized genetic sequence information may undermine the Nagoya protocol and its emphasis on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources and their utilization. The idea here is that nation states currently have sovereign ownership over genetic resources in their territory and a right to benefits generated from the use of them. Also, it is recognized that indigenous people often have in depth knowledge of plant and animal properties (and have played a key role in their evolution) and that if companies develop products that extract benefit from this, then there should be a prior and informed consent for use and mutually agreed terms for fair and equitable benefit sharing. This was seen as threatened by the development of digitalized genetic sequences that could be easily shared around the globe without any negotiations of requirements for access and benefit sharing. This topic proved difficult to handle in the negotiations because it spanned the CBD, the Nagoya protocol and the group working with synthetic biology. Ultimately a plan was made for further work on this topic, however, some parties were dissatisfied that the process of international negotiations was grindingly slow in comparison to the rate of the technology development.

While the debates on these topics were extremely interesting to follow, one thing that really struck me was a feeling of hypocrisy at this meeting. This was not only the hypocrisy of having a meeting about conserving the world’s spectacular biodiversity in the extremely homogenized and human dominated and hotel saturated location of Cancun. It was also connected to the carbon emissions generated by having over 6000 people fly in for the meeting and the terrible quality of food available at the event, which surely came from industrial monocultures and failed to support local produce or agrobiodiversity. Another striking element was the lack of civil society protest. While there were some small demonstrations of indigenous people and one award ceremony for the worst beha
ved parties and companies, in general, there was very little public protest, action or even visibility. Rather, civil society organizations were directly engaged in the process and participating by organizing formal events and discussions within the architecture of the meeting. This is a stark contrast to the international negotiations around another key global environmental issue – climate change – where civil society has an extremely strong, loud and colourful presence. This was surprising since biodiversity loss is an extremely serious global concern that has already reached crisis proportions. While I also held a formal side event at this year’s meeting (on the concept of synbiodiversity), if I attend in future years I will also seriously consider engaging in and coordinating awareness raising actions outside the formal arrangements available for the meeting. The loss of the world’s biodiversity is just too important to leave to the negotiations alone.

Keeping Up With New and Emerging Technologies

This year the Agri/Cultures Project has spent a significant amount of time attending and presenting at various international seminars, conferences and events (as our previous blog posts demonstrate). Last week this continued as I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Studies of New and Emerging Technologies (S.Net).

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This interdisciplinary society held its 8th annual conference in Bergen from October 11-14 and had an incredibly diverse program. It included keynote speeches from intellectual heavyweights Silvio Funtowicz, Sheila Jasanoff and Joseph Dumit, as well as presentations from a range of philosophers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and legal scholars interested in different new and emerging technologies. Beyond the standard academic talks though, the program also included other formats and approaches, such as a hands on do-it-yourself biology workshop analysing microplastics in fish using standard household ingredients, a workshop on art and performance based exercises for advancing responsible innovation and a film night showing short films from the biofiction film festival (which I participated in as a member of the discussion panel afterwards). It was truly wonderful to participate in such a diverse event bringing together different fields of science and art in creative ways to analyse the socio-ecological relations around new and emerging technologies. I would highly recommend anyone interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of new and emerging technologies to consider attending the next meeting, which is planned to be held in Phoenix in October 2017.

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Although at this event I presented work I am doing as a partner in other projects (NANoREGNorNanoReg, REDiG) on responsible innovation within the field of nanotechnology, I also took the opportunity to attend several sessions dealing with biotechnology issues. This included an interesting talk by Koen Beumer on biotechnology in Africa analysed from an identity politics perspective. He was specifically talking about how the identity of “the farmer” is being differentially constructed and performed by those inside and outside the biotechnology community. In another session, the always energetic Dorothy Dankel provided an insight into how the CRISPR/Cas system is being deployed to study and develop sterile salmon for the aquaculture industry and facilitated a debate on whether we would/should be eating GM salmon in 5 years. While in another interesting presentation, Alberto Aparicio presented some of his PhD research on the field of xenobiology (or orthogonal biology) in which scientists seek to develop new forms of life not based on DNA. He presented this work as promoting itself as useful for the potential containment and control of future GMOs.

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All of these talks made me realise that not only do we currently have very little empirical research available on how the GMOs currently in commercial circulation are reshaping our agri/cultures and socio-ecological relations, but also that there is now a groundswell of new developments underway that researchers interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of biotechnology will have to work very hard to keep up with. This makes working at the interface between biology and philosophy, and between biotechnology and society, both extremely exciting and uniquely challenging right now, and perhaps more important than ever before.