Home > Publications > Articles, Briefing Papers, Corporate Takeover of Food Systems > The Convention on Biological Diversity must resist the commodification of all life

From December 7- 19, the 15th COP of the Convention on Biological Diversity  (CBD) will be taking place in Montreal, Canada, the first COP to take place since 2018, after being delayed due to the pandemic. This upcoming CBD COP is set to debate the next global framework establishing the goals and targets to be set for the next decade, to address the continued unprecedented loss of biodiversity. After the failure to reach any of  the Aichi targets set at the CBD COP10 at Nagoya, Japan, this next framework will prove crucial in setting the tone for biodiversity governance through 2030, and onto 2050.

Two of the key topics being discussed at the COP15 are the issues around financing for biodiversity conservation, the issues of digital sequence information (DSI) and the governance of new biotechnologies.

Globally the COP15 comes at a pivotal moment when biotech and agribusiness are making a desperate attempt to greenwash new biotechnologies and financial schemes, lobby for deregulation and push new and untested technologies out to market faster. All while claiming these new biotechnologies, like CRISPR-Cas9 used for gene editing, gene drives, digital sequencing, and synthetic biology, and schemes like biodiversity credits and green finance, should be considered sustainable solutions to today’s crisis.

So far, the CBD has been the only international body addressing the governance of these new issues, evaluating their potential impact on biodiversity, as well as their multidimensional implications. This makes the current CBD COP all the more important for our ecological future.

But as described in Navdanya International’s Gates to a Global Empire report, starting back in 2016 there was already growing concern over the influence of the business sector over the agendas of these issues. As noted by Adelita San Vicente Tello and Aidé Jiménez-Martínez, delegates from the Mexican Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to the CBD, language was already beginning to shift toward a more mercantile view of nature, and framing biodiversity for its commercial potential. Since then, the want for greater commercialization of biodiversity has only grown, and is now taking center stage at the current meeting.

A Short History of the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol

In 1992 the UN Earth Summit  meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil took place to address the growing concerns of species extinction, biodiversity erosion, and climate change. Out of the Earth’s summit the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity  (CBD) was established, as well as the UN framework Convention on Climate Change. Two key principles were also established at the Rio meeting: the precautionary principle, and the polluter pays principles. According to Navdanya International President, Dr. Vandana Shiva, “Rio was based on values of ecological sustainability, social justice and economic equity – across countries and within countries. It was shaped by ecological movements, ecological science and sovereign governments.”

It was with these values in place that the UN CBD’s main objectives were established: “The conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources”, including the protection of agrobiodiversity, and the creation of frameworks for the protection of biodiversity. As technologies have developed, this mandate now also includes governance over biotechnologies, as defined by the CBD as, “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”.

Regulations around access and benefits sharing of biodiversity was set in place by the Nagoya Protocol, which set up a legal framework for access to biodiversity and  the equitable sharing of benefits coming from the use of genetic resources. The protocol also established that states have the right over their biodiversity, and authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with national governments and is therefore subject to national legislation. This protocol was set up in order to protect states’ biodiversity heritage, along with the traditional knowledge attached to it, to make sure the countries whose genetic resources were used received adequate compensation or benefit sharing from the use of their genetic resources. As well as legal frameworks for taking out genetic samples and resources out of countries. All to combat bioprospecting and biopiracy from biodiversity-rich countries. But now with the evolution of digitalization tools, and new biotechnologies, the Nagoya protocol is under direct threat.

The Legacy of the the TRIPS/ GATT agreements

Shortly after the creation of the CBD, the Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade rules (GATT) and the Global Intellectual Property and Patent Laws in the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreements were ratified, formally institutionalizing a new free trade regime of food and agriculture. As part of the TRIPS/ GATT agreement, clause 27.3(b) started a new era of seed and biodiversity imperialism, effectively creating a loophole allowing for the provisional patenting of living organisms and their genetic material. The clause states, “Parties may exclude from patentability plants and animals other than micro-organisms, and essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals other than non-biological and micro- biological processes. However, parties shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof.

Although there have been divergent opinions on the interpretation of this clause, the effect of this agreement has led to corporations being able to patent seed, and biodiversity, as has been the case with GMOs, or the plants that provide the genetic material for the creation of GMOs. Today this precedent is leading to the ability for these same corporations to now patent digitalized genetic material, while essentially circumventing the frameworks established by the Nagoya protocol. 

What is Digital Sequenced Information (DSI)

Digital Sequence information (DSI) is a biotechnology which can effectively scan a variety of genetic information of an organism’s genome, allowing for plants’ genetic material to be uploaded onto a digital database. Since the liberation of digital sequencing technologies in 2010, billions of genetic sequences, from nucleotides from DNA, sequences of RNA, amino acids, chemical compounds derived from genetic information (metabolites) and even epigenetic or  information derived from environmental/  ecological interactions, as well as any other resulting information, have been sequenced and collected in various public and private databases. The largest repositories being public databases.

DSI has become a way to mass preserve and conserve genetic diversity, but  since the take off of genetic biotechnologies, DSI has now become a valuable raw material for biotech companies. With synthetic biology technology, private companies and research institutions can now download the digitalized genetic information, and synthetically recreate the sequences in a lab, while effectively bypassing existing regulation on biodiversity access. Through CRISPR-CAS9 and other gene editing technologies, those synthetically recreated genetic materials can then be used to genetically alter living organisms. While there are many uses for DSI, such as for industrial chemical production, medical research, pharmaceutical development, the applications surrounding food, agriculture and gene drives are of the greatest concern.

(Image Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRISPR_Cas9_(41124064215).jpg)

The next generation of GMOs are now being pushed with little regulation in many parts of the world. These “New Breeding Techniques” (NBTs), “New Genomic Techniques” (NGTs), or as the EU commission calls them, “plants produced by certain new genomic techniques” go beyond a new generation of GMO seeds, but are now extending to animals in agriculture, and other living organisms. For example, a new GMO potato was created by The International Potato Center through  a DSI of an Argentinian and Peruvian potato variety with a sequence available from the public database GenBank. Experiments then took place in East Africa, without any financial compensation to Argentina or Peru. Highly risky gene drive organisms, such as gene drive mosquitoes, or mosquitoes that have been genetically modified with an extinction gene, have now been released all over the world, with little to no understanding of their potential ecological effects. All under the excuse of the eradication of malaria. Civil society organizations have been urging the CBD to consider the dangerous consequences this extinction technology could have and place a global moratorium on such extinction technologies.

As has been researched extensively by Navdanya International, these new biotechnologies are also being used for the creation of dangerous ultra processed artificial foods, using gene edited microorganisms for the ‘fermentation’ of chemical compounds. Impossible Burger, for example, uses a “heme” molecule from soy leghemoglobin, a colorant produced in genetically engineered yeast to make their burgers appear to ‘bleed’. According to the Center for Food Safety, the FDA didn’t conduct adequate long-term testing before approving the color additive in 2019, and after a short-term rat trial several potential adverse effects were detected.

Through mergers and acquisitions, cross-licensing between multinationals, as well as unregulated access to public DSI databases, private companies are able to amass huge private databases of genetic material, essentially leading to digitalized biopiracy. For example, Bill Gates funded Gingko Bioworks has now become one of  the largest synthetic biology firms in the US. Thanks to the TRIPPS/ GATT clause and other patenting precedents, Ginkgo Bioworks is able to download publicly available DSI, tweak it and patent the resulting material to be used for the creation of synthetic food ingredients through its subsidiary Motif Foodworks, or for agricultural application through its partnership with Bayer. Novel methods of digital sequencing, database storage mechanism, search mechanisms and synthetic biology techniques can also be patented and kept as trade secrets by companies such as these. This effectively bypasses and blocks the principles of the Nagoya protocol, leading directly to digital biopiracy.

Concerns over these technologies are rooted in the long history of monopolization, privatization and biopiracy done by multinationals and western companies which have generated billions in profits. All with devastating consequences for the environment, from over exploitation, the creation and expansion of GMOs, the degradation of biodiversity, a lack of compensation, and the patenting out of farmers from their own seed and biodiversity. The risk of these technologies, if not properly regulated, is the further privatization of life.

While these issues were first raised in the December 2016 COP at Cancun, in 2018 the CBD noted the divergent views on this issue which resulted in the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group Report. The expert group report has since issued a variety of recommendations to be taken up at the current COP15 on how to address the use of DSI technology, including updated frameworks for adequate compensation for nations, and indigenous groups, adequate tracking and traceability of country of origin, and that the benefits should contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. As explained by Josè Esquinas-Alcazar, former Secretary of the FAO Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and Chairman of the FAO Ethics Committee for Food and Agriculture, these new technologies are also being taken up by the negotiations of The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, where access and benefits sharing for food and agriculture, thanks to DSI, is having to be renegotiated.

But considering the intensification of the corporate lobby in recent COPs, as well as interest in the United States marked by the recent Presidential Executive Order pledging support for advancing the bioeconomy, there is a large chance the issue could be forestalled once again.

The Financialization of Nature

As a growing response to the mass extinction of species, the financial sector has been making calls for the false solution of financializing nature and biodiversity through a number of market mechanisms. Organizations such as, Finance for Europe (AFME) and EY have proposed for the upcoming CBD COP recommendations around the creation of biodiversity credits, and Nature Asset companies (NACs) to provide finance to global south countries to conserve biodiversity.  

This arises from the CBD’s call for the need of increased finance for developing countries from wealthier countries to help support the conservation and protection of biodiversity. Specifically, as part of the draft global framework to be presented at this COP, a USD $200 billion increase in financial flows for biodiversity conservation.

The finance sector is now trying to step in arguing that since, currently, 87 percent of funding for biodiversity comes from public finance, philanthropy and development institutions, and it is still not enough to cover all restoration and protection needs, private funding can come in to lessen the global biodiversity finance gap. Since they recognize that all industry and financial markets are intrinsically dependent on nature, they propose attaching measurable valuation schemes such as “nature-based solutions”, blue finance or ocean carbon/ biodiversity credits, and regenerative agriculture credits,  to help protect what they deem as natural assets. This also includes the financialization of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and anything deemed “natural capital”. All under the guise of ‘protecting’ it. But if these sound familiar, it’s because many of these finance schemes are similar to those proposed for climate change finance,  which have already been called out as  greenwashed buzzwords being used to maintain the status quo.

The roll out of these schemes has already started, as in 2021 the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) unveiled a new asset class based on natural capital, called Natural Asset Companies (NAC). NACs work by identifying a natural asset and valuing it, such as a piece of endangered rainforest, an endangered animal or an entire ecosystem. Based on this, an NAC is then created, with the structure of the company or the company owners manages the NAC and lists it on the stock exchange. The NAC then generates financial capital through stock market exchange, and its value (aka the value of the ‘natural capital’) is determined by the index price. The NAC will then, in theory, conserve, maintain and grow the natural assets.

Ways of valuing ‘natural capital’, as proposed to the CBD COP, also include biodiversity credits, or a financial scheme which finances biodiversity actions through the creation, sale and exchange of biodiversity ‘units’.

But even the NYSE and others admit that the main appeal of these new financialization schemes is the virtually unlimited potential for profit generation. As stated by Intrinsic Exchange, the company that helped NYSE launch its new asset class, can be potentially valued at USD$4000 trillion dollar “nature’s economy”. They also state that NAC can increase investor profits, “as the natural asset prospers, providing a steady or increasing flow of ecosystem services, the company’s equity should appreciate accordingly providing investment returns. Shareholders and investors in the company through secondary offers, can take profit by selling shares. These sales can be gauged to reflect the increase in capital value of the stock, roughly in-line with its profitability, creating cashflow based on the health of the company and its assets.”

(Source: Intrinsic Exchange: https://www.intrinsicexchange.com/en/solution)

There are many alarming aspects to the financial sector’s attempts to commodify whole ecosystems. These schemes essentially allow the historically plundering financial sector to determine what in nature has value, and  what ecological communities and ecosystems are not assets deemed of protecting. The financialization of nature will only lead to the further commodification of the last remaining commons of the world, folding into the market economy the last remaining part of the natural world that had remained outside human purview.

NACs and anyone who creates, values and holds “biodiversity credits”, can now hold the exclusive rights to ecosystems, ecosystem services, land, and other beings, and ecological processes. The total commodification of nature, and ecosystems is extremely worrying, as nature is not a mere mechanism for profit, but is intrinsic in its own right to exist and thrive. It is not for financial robber barons to determine what in life has value. These schemes will also directly lead to land grabbing, as has already occurred through carbon credit systems, as 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is in indigenous territories.

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As history has shown us, corporate appropriation of the commons and of nature has never resulted in the greater protection of nature. The reason for today’s crisis is due to the extractivist, profit-driven, and mechanistic mentality of the corporate sector. There is zero evidence to suggest that all of a sudden, the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, Blackrock, the World Economic Forum, and others corporate interests will ever have the public, the planets or nature’s best interest in mind. Who’s to say that a sector that has been in charge of destroying biodiversity and nature will all of a sudden be able to come in and save it?

The double angle attempts at commodifying life, both through the digitalization of genetic information, and the financialization of biodiversity and ecosystems, really just represent the latest attempts of corporate interest to commodify life. While at the same time, fully vertically integrating every aspect of their product chains from the very ecosystem functions that make their products possible, to extend ultimate control over every level of life. What is at risk here is the final encroaching on the complete privatization and commodification of life. We must resist.

© Navdanya International 2022

Further Reading

New GMOs: civil society organisations along with organic and agroecological producers reject the European Commission’s opinion in favour of alternative regulations (May 2021)

The Gmo Revival (April 2021)

Webinar ‘GMOs are a failed Technology. The future is GMO-Free’ – Highlights (March 2021)

Truths and lies about new and old GMOs – Testing the industry narrative (February 2021)

Digital Biopiracy to Undermine International Treaties that Protect Biodiversity and Prevent Biopiracy (“Gates to a Global Empire” Report), Navdanya International, October 2020

Beyond Green Gold: Megadiverse Countries as Providers of Genetic Resources and Digital Sequence Information – Aidé Jiménez-Martínez And Adelita San Vicente Tello (“Gates to a Global Empire” Report), Navdanya International, October 2020

A Treaty to Protect our Agricultural Biodiversity – Josè Esquinas-Alcazar  (“Gates to a Global Empire” Report), Navdanya International, October 2020

Owning Seeds Through Patents and New Gene Editing GMO Technologies –  Vandana Shiva (“Gates to a Global Empire” Report), Navdanya International, October 2020

Global Resistance to Genetic Extinction Technology –  Navdanya (“Gates to a Global Empire” Report), Navdanya International, October 2020

Biodiversity, Gmos, & Gene Drives of the Militarised Mind – Vandana Shiva (“Gates to a Global Empire” Report), Navdanya International, October 2020

The Law of the Seed – Navdanya International, 2013

Seed Freedom – A Global Citizens’ Report – Navdanya International, 2012