As the fight against the novel corona virus has shown, international cooperation and a rapid exchange of information can be crucial. It was only through the publication of genetic sequence data on the virus that it was possible to develop diagnostic procedures so quickly.
Effective international cooperation is also important for urgent problems such as the conservation of biological diversity and world food security. Modern methods in the analysis of the genetic composition of organisms, the database infrastructure set up for this purpose and big data analyses, as well as free access to relevant data already play a decisive role in this regard.
However, the status of "digital sequence information" ("DSI") on genetic resources under international law is controversial. Countries that have regulated access to their genetic resources fear that the free use of published sequence data can undermine benefit-sharing regulations. Background: The ABS regulations in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Nagoya Protocol refer to genetic resources in the form of physical material. However, new technologies are already making it possible to develop products purely based on digital information on the molecular composition of genetic resources.
Hence, at the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2016, the Parties to the CBD agreed on a process to clarify whether, and if so, how the use of digital sequence information relates to ABS. The Contracting Parties could not agree on a definition and a clear concept for "Digital Sequence Information”, so the term is still considered a placeholder.
Even in 2018, the CBD Contracting Parties were unable to reach an agreement. Whether or not "DSI" is to be considered synonymous with genetic resources and whether or not the use of DSI causes benefit sharing obligations remained a matter of dispute. Parties agreed on a science based discussion process aimed at overcoming the divergence of views at the upcoming UN-Biodiversity Conference in the context of the adoption of the post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The meeting was originally scheduled for October 2020 in Kunming, China.
Further information on the upcoming decision-making process on digital sequence information under the CBD can be found at https://www.cbd.int/dsi-gr/. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in collaboration with the ABS Capacity Development Initiative, is organizing a global webinar series on DSI, see also https://www.cbd.int/article/dsi-webinar-series-2020. The scientific studies commissioned by the CBD Secretariat on the topic are available as working documents of the Ad hoc Technical Working Group on DSI, which took place online in March 2020, at https://www.cbd.int/meetings/DSI-AHTEG-2020-01. The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety is the lead agency for Germany in the CBD negotiations.
The 17th session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) was held from 18-22 February 2019. Here too, the topic "DSI" on genetic resources for food and agriculture was the subject of controversial discussions.
It was decided to deal with the topic again at the next meeting in 2021, although not under the agenda item ABS, but rather as a separate working strand that will continue to shed light on the innovation opportunities, challenges and existing or missing capacities worldwide in the generation, access to and usability of "DSI" in the sub-sectors of food and agriculture.
The 8th meeting of the Governing Body of the International Seed Treaty was held in Rome on November 11-16, 2019.
A central theme of this meeting was a comprehensive package of measures to improve the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (MLS). The question of the future handling of "digital sequence information" on genetic resources was also discussed in this context. No agreement could be reached on the package of measures or on the continuation of further work on this topic for the next two years.
With regard to "DSI", it was decided that developments, studies and results on the subject of "digital sequence information" in the area of the CBD and CGRFA should be followed up by the Secretariat. At the next meeting of the Board of Directors in autumn 2021, the effects of the generation, exchange and use of "digital sequence information" generated from MLS material will be discussed.