By Margaret Karembu, PhD, MBS – Director, ISAAA AfriCenter

Africa is endowed with rich biodiversity stretching from terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems. The continent’s living organisms comprise around a quarter of global biodiversity. The importance of this biodiversity cannot be overemphasized. In addition to providing humans with food, fuel, shelter and medicine, ecosystems play critical roles in pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, et cetera.

Biological resources obtained from the rich biodiversity have been used to develop products of value to humanity. Today, whole value chains of great socio, cultural, and economic value are anchored on the availability of biological resources from the natural ecosystem. Therefore, biodiversity conservation and restoration is an agenda for each and every one of us.

Rapid advances in molecular biology technologies, and reduction in cost associated with DNA sequencing have seen an exponential increase in the number of sequenced genomes. Genome sequence data and the resultant processed information is mostly uploaded on public, open-access databases. This has raised a global issue on access, benefit-sharing and compliance in the utilization of digital sequence information (DSI) on genetic resources.

Digital sequence information on genetic resources is a cross-cutting issue first addressed in 2016 by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol (COP13/COPMOP2) in Cancun, Mexico.

Although there is no consensus on the concept and scope of DSI, Parties to the Convention generally recognize that it incorporates data and information derived from genetic resources. Parties also recognize that access to and use of DSI on genetic resources contributes to scientific research, non-commercial and commercial activities in areas of biological diversity, food security, human, animal and plant health. Discussions are ongoing on consensus in modalities of benefit-sharing from the use of DSI on genetic resources. At the global arena, the subject of DSI has generated divergent views and polarized debate.

Under the CBD discussions, some of the clarifications being sought, and addressed by the 2020 ad hoc technical expert group (AHTEG) on DSI include;

Concept and scope of DSI

Which groups of genetic and biochemical information should be considered as genetic resources? A consensus on this scope will provide conceptual clarity regarding DSI, and with it, legal clarity in benefit-sharing.

Traceability and databases

Availability of DSI on open databases outside control of the original genetic resources provider country allows third parties to access and use this information outside the modalities worked out in the Nagoya Protocol. What modalities should be adopted to improve traceability of DSI along the value chain and back to the provider country?

Domestic measures addressing DSI

It is generally agreed that DSI may result, directly or indirectly, from utilization of genetic resources. Are countries developing (or considering) formal domestic regulations/guidelines for addressing issues related to DSI? Is there need to regulate DSI?

Another key consideration under DSI is capacity building. The 2020 AHTEG on DSI highlighted the need to build capacity of countries to develop domestic research and manage their own biodiversity. Here, building scientific infrastructure is paramount.

Finally, there is a need for transparent dialogue among involved stakeholders, to build understanding, and agree on a science- and policy-based process to address benefit-sharing from the use of DSI on genetic resources acquired pre-and post- the Nagoya Protocol. For Africa, scientists must be willing to participate in these international negotiations on DSI, and advice their governments when drafting national policies on access and benefit-sharing between users and providers of DSI on genetic resources.