Guest post by Joseph Vogel
Twenty-five years of negotiations by Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity over “access to genetic resources” and “benefit sharing” have rendered no fruit, just frustration. A foundational error explains the abject failure of the fourteen Conferences of the Parties: genetic resources are (mis)interpreted as tangible. Reflection on that history inspires a song, understandably satirical.
From 17-29 November 2018, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity met for the 14th time since its ratification in 1993. The Silver Jubilee was bittersweet. Even the venue—the semi-abandoned Sharm-El-Sheikh on the Red Sea—cast a shadow over the deliberations. Essentially, the Parties could not agree on “genetic material”, which is the linchpin to the economics of the treaty. User countries interpret “material” as tangible while Provider countries as intangible. The former frees global databases from the obligation to share benefits arising from utilization, while the latter, obliges. What is at stake goes well beyond payments. To “access genetic resources”, the Convention requires that Users obtain “prior informed consent”, which could arguably be required for all data downloaded from online sources, including from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Catalogue of Life and the International Barcode of Life.
The conflict falls largely along a North-South divide, where divergent interpretations are not equally defensible. The South’s is based on science: the object of R&D is undoubtedly information. The Malaysian delegate expressed it well during the plenary of the Conference on Sunday 18 November 2018: “genetic resources minus information has no value” (microbial exceptions notwithstanding). The Northern rejoinder invokes stare decisis, which means “stand by precedent” even if wrong. Both the North and South see each other’s position as an existential threat. For the South, exclusion of “digital sequence information” means loss of the much needed benefits to thwart habitat loss. For the North, inclusion thwarts R&D. Explicit is the threat of re-locating scientific endeavors to the non-Party to the Convention, viz., the United States of America.
A way forward exists that actually pre-dates the ratification of the Convention. In 1990, I began applying the “economics of information” to genetic resources as “natural information”. Textbook economics justifies a“Global Multilateral Benefit-Sharing Mechanism”, which is the title of Article 10 of the 2010 Nagoya Protocol to the Convention. The mechanics are straightforward. Genetic resources would flow unencumbered. Royalties would be charged upon commercialization of a product protected by intellectual property and revenue, distributed to countries of origin proportional to habitat size. For resources that are ubiquitous, the money would revert to the public science of taxonomy. The handle is “bounded openness” which is the diametric opposite of the current system adopted by the Conference. Much is at stake given that the global bio-economy stands at nearly one trillion US dollars per year.
Theoretical solutions should not remain only theoretical. Beginning with the second Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (Indonesia 1995), I have served in most of the conferences as either a technical advisor to a delegation or as a speaker in a side event. I have always tried to explain the economics in simple terms. When the arguments are not ignored or dismissed, they are met with hostility. From the North, delegates have chastised me for creating unrealistic expectations of the benefits to be shared; from the South, for undermining sovereignty. The criticisms are so wrong that I daresay that they are not even wrong. They are diversionary tactics to protect the status quo, which is a demonstrably failed bilateralism over genetic resources.
Read more: Open access under attack – how international regulation collides with the open use of genetic sequence data
When the royalty percentage in contracts are disclosed or leaked, the percentages hover around 1%. Brazil allows royalties as low as 0.1%. The economics of information suggests quid pro quo: the limited-in-time monopolies granted industry for artificial information shoud be matched by limited-in-time oligopolies for natural information. The “fair and equitable” which modify “benefit-sharing” in the Convention should be interpreted as equality in the negotiating positions between Users of the North and Providers of the South, and not to any specific percentage. I hasten to add that what will emerge will inevitably be higher than 0.1% or even 1%. Quid quo pro also extends to sovereignty. The submission of a Party to a multilateral system is an expression of sovereignty, not unlike ratification to the Convention in the first instance.
Alas, logic and evidence are surprisingly unpersuasive. Delegates feel political pressure, almost viscerally. After some twenty-five years of
communicating the economics, I now turn to evolutionary psychology. Humans did not evolve to read anything whatsoever, much less Economics. Song and dance may be the better “way forward”, which is the earnest plea of the UN Secretariat. Inspired by the agility of Saturday Night Live to satirize the news cycle in the Age of Trump, I have tried my hand as a lyricist. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” seems pre-adapted to the Conference of the Parties. My rendition “Wind Blowin’ in the [Brackets]” opens with “How many species must Earth lose, Before acts the CBD?” The second verse reiterates the message of the first: “How many measures must be proposed, Before comes a Bretton Woods?” The chorus implies multilateralism and celebrates the capstone achievement of the veritable Darwin of economics.
“The answer, my friend, speaks Lord John Maynard Keynes, the answer speaks Lord John Maynard Keynes.”
In Sharm-El-Sheikh, I played the Youtube recording to delegates from North and South. I saw merriment. And for other Hominids so inclined, there is also the Karaoke version.
Joseph Henry Vogel is professor of economics at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. He is most recently author of a trilogy of essays published by Intellectual Property-Watch [www.ip-watch.org] advocating “bounded openness over natural information”.