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Does the Nagoya Protocol support or hinder the growth of a global bioeconomy?

Biology based economy, referred to as bioeconomy is seen as the driver for the next frontier of innovation. It offers new insights and perspectives on problem solving and tackling challenges related to our future. Approximately 13% of global exports in 2014 composed of products in agriculture, forestry, food, bioenergy and biotechnology, amounting to a 10% increase from 2010. A recent article in Nature outlines a set of key principles to help advance the bioeconomy. Here, we examine whether the Nagoya Protocol can further advance this goal.

For both rich and industrialized countries, investing in the bioeconomy is seen as a means to create wealth. Industrialized countries such as Japan and United States are interested in expanding their bioeconomy to foster wealth generation.  Emerging markets such as Brazil and China view biotechnology as an evolving field in which they can compete in. In addition to seeking to boost their bioeconomy, nations also recognize the importance of ecological sustainability, a vital component of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Central to building a global bioeconomy is knowledge transfer as well as effective regulatory of IP frameworks. Knowledge transfer allows nations with strong technical expertise and biological infrastructure to share it with other nations that tend to have knowledge of local biological resources. Technology transfer can be viewed as a catalyst to cross-pollinate innovative approaches to biodiversity governance. Regulatory IP frameworks that support access to and use of genetic resources are also essential to enable research and development.

In addition to this, the article highlights the importance of international collaborations between governments, public and private researchers for optimizing resource use and knowledge sharing. However, the difficulty lies in striking a balance between promoting access of genetic resources and ensuring sustainability. The Nagoya Protocol can be useful in helping achieve this balance because it is guided by fundamental principles that recognize the importance of ecological sustainability as well as equitable sharing of genetic resources. It provides global agreed standards for access and benefit sharing of genetic resources, allowing countries that lack capacity to benefit from sharing their resources while nations that lack certain resources can access them based on a standard procedure. The global agreed standards facilitated by the Nagoya Protocol help support more transparency and collaboration between nations while helping advance the bioeconomy.

Currently, 73 countries are Parties to the Nagoya Protocol. Establishment of  legislative, administrative or policy measures to implement the access and benefit sharing (ABS) obligations of the Nagoya Protocol has been more modest with only 43 jurisdictions listed on the ABS Clearing House while other jurisdictions with ABS measures remain unlisted. A spectrum of challenges are inhibiting broad adoption of the Protocol including lack of capacity, and lack of sufficient political will.  Implementing ABS measures can be difficult  as it requires harmonization of existing legislation or development of a new legislative framework with diverse stakeholder interests. In addition, the procedural aspect of the Protocol, which requires establishment of prior informed consent and mutually agreed terms for access and utilization of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, has also been criticized as adding a time-consuming albatross to the bio-discovery process.

It is important to overcome these challenges without compromising the fundamental principles of the Nagoya Protocol, scientific advancement and economic output. The results will be promising in helping install ABS mechanisms that promote fair and equitable relations between countries while helping boost a global bioeconomy.

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Vipal Jain is a Research Assistant with ABS Canada. Her interest in international intellectual property, biotechnology and sustainable development brings her to ABS. Vipal is currently a second year JD law student at the University of Ottawa. She is also the co-founder of BioTown, a nonprofit organization in Ottawa that encourages accessible science. Vipal holds a Bachelor of Science with a specialization in genetics and biotechnology from the University of Toronto.