The Alliance for Science is heading to another intense round of global environmental negotiations this month, as the world meets in Montreal, Canada, to discuss the impact of the biodiversity crisis on climate change.
It might seem too soon after the recent COP27 UN climate talks, but the focus of this meeting at the 15th United Nations Biodiversity Conference of Parties (CBD COP15) will be on addressing the distressing prediction by scientists that nearly 40% of all species will face extinction by the end of this century if we continue on our current trajectory of habitat loss and global warming.
Their disappearance will disrupt ecosystems and destabilize human civilization. To sustain the earth’s biodiversity, we’ll need new protections and better enforcement of the existing ones. We have less than a decade to achieve urgent, transformative change.
The rising impact of biodiversity collapse may have been overshadowed in recent years by the more immediate challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing economic recession and extreme weather events due to the climate crisis. The risk looms even larger in terms of potential impact in every area of our lives, and therefore this Conference of the Parties happening as the year ends underlines its fundamental importance making hard decisions about how the world will survive all the environmental challenges coming in the near future.
Biodiversity is usually explored at three levels – genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity. These three levels work together to create the complexity of life on Earth. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the international legal instrument for “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources” and has been ratified by 196 nations.
It also considers that access to and transfer of biotechnologies are essential to attain its objectives and sets an obligation for parties to develop national biosafety systems (Articles 8 and 16 of the Convention of Biological Diversity). From this obligation, the Cartagena Protocol was developed. It establishes international biosafety best practice to balance needs of trade, the potential benefits of the technology, and environmental protection.
Therefore, between 7-18 December 2022, 196 countries who have signed the agreements are coming together to decide on the best plan of action to reduce biodiversity loss, with a specific obligation on utilizing biotechnology, while limiting its impact on the environment.
Depending on the final language of the biotech target (Target 17), the convention will either support an enabling policy environment that allows for the development and adoption of innovations in agricultural biotechnology or it will discourage the use of biotechnology by using language that focuses only on risks, which can lead to restrictive national policies.
The Alliance for Science (AfS) is supporting the negotiations on biotechnology at COP15, because we seek a future where science and innovation is shared and supported to help bring about a world without poverty, where people everywhere can flourish on an ecologically protected and restored planet. As a global communications initiative, the AfS supports science-based solutions to the key issues affecting communities, including the need to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, mitigate the climate crisis, reduce poverty, and improve food security and nutrition.
At the COP15 negotiations, the Alliance will be encouraging a balanced approach to assessing the contributions and impact of biotechnology on the environment. Therefore, our focus will be on highlighting some of the positive contributions of biotechnology to the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
We will also be advocating for the use of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs), as they are known under the CBD and Cartagena Protocol, resulting from biotechnology as they offer climate smart solutions, such as drought tolerant, and pesticide resistant seeds among other innovations which support sustainable agriculture, reduce chemical pesticide use and ultimately enhance biodiversity.
LMOs are often called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and have faced historic challenges to their uptake and use in many countries, due to misinformation and disinformation, which continues to limit access to these technologies for developing countries.
One of the many important outcomes of this upcoming COP will be to ensure the development, adoption, and implementation of an effective post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). The GBF is effectively the blueprint that all countries will follow to guide their actions towards reducing biodiversity loss for the next 10 years.
It is important for future biotech innovations because it has a specific target on biosafety/biotechnology. The scope and language used for the target will therefore influence how some countries use, develop and transfer biotech products. This is critically important because we cannot afford not to use LMOs to help curb biodiversity loss and to address the adverse impacts of climate change on vulnerable countries in the Global South.
The issue to be decided at COP, and AfS position
The first draft of Target 17 on biotechnology/biosafety reads as follows: “Establish, strengthen capacity for, and implement measures in all countries to prevent, manage or control potential adverse impacts of biotechnology on biodiversity and human health, reducing the risk of these impacts.”
After various rounds of negotiations, Parties are discussing and will decide at COP15:
a) what the scope of the target should be, which means what type of biotech techniques are included;
b) if the target should focus only on risks (as the current text does) or if language should be added to recognize and encourage the positive impacts of biotechnology for the objectives of the Convention and/or the contribution to the SDGs.
On these two issues; the AfS will be advocating the following:
(1) For the target to have a simple and operational scope that aligns with the CBD and Cartagena Protocol (CP) and covers living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.
(2) that the parties should recognize the positive impacts of biotechnology on Target 17 of the GBF because there is abundant literature that demonstrates the benefits and recognizing these will encourage the use of biotech tools to achieve sustainability in agriculture and other areas.
Ultimately, many countries’ biosafety laws were established to comply with the obligations set forth in the CBD and CP, which aim to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of biotechnology.
The CBD and the CP highlight that:
a) access to and transfer of biotechnologies are essential to attain the objectives of the CBD;
b) modern biotechnology has great potential for human wellbeing if developed and used with adequate safety measures for the environment and human health.
Therefore, the parties should acknowledge in Target 17 that adopting biotechnology will contribute to the objectives of the CBD.
We have listed four challenges that we will face as we enter the talks to support member states and other likeminded groups to help establish reasonable and evidence-based targets on biosafety/biotechnology. Success in these four areas will be more effective in creating an enabling policy environment for the development and adoption of future biotech solutions for the climate and biodiversity crisis.
CHALLENGE 1: ENCOURAGING SCIENTISTS IN GLOBAL SOUTH TO DEVELOP SUSTAINABLE BIOTECH SOLUTIONS
In recent years biotech crops have reduced global insecticide use by 37%, reduced carbon emissions by keeping 23 billion kg of CO2 from being introduced into the environment, and potentially preserved 25 million hectares of pristine wilderness that would otherwise have been needed to meet current food productivity levels.
Many locally developed LMOs, have helped address national and regional environmental and agricultural challenges in the Global South. LMOs in Latin America (Latam), Africa and Southern Asia have effectively contributed to the achievement of the SDGs.
Drought tolerant wheat in Argentina, virus resistant beans in Brazil, as well as pest resistant brinjal (eggplant) in Bangladesh, effectively contribute to the reduction of agriculture’s environmental impact by reducing water and pesticide use, as well as reducing the need for farmland expansion.
Additionally, LMOs in Africa, such as the recently approved virus resistant cassava in Kenya and Nigeria, insect resistant cowpea in Nigeria, Bt maize in Kenya, and Bt Cotton in Nigeria and Kenya are expected to enhance rural livelihoods by addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change in the Global South.
Recognizing and highlighting these successes will encourage other countries in the Global South to use their local talent, resources, and scientific ingenuity to invest in innovations which offer locally appropriate climate smart solutions.
Thus, the Alliance is supporting key decision-makers in seven countries (Kenya, Nigeria, Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina), to highlight their successes through a side event that will present case studies on the positive impacts of LMOs in agriculture at COP15.
CHALLENGE 2: RECOGNIZING SAFE USE OF LMOs FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS
There is a global scientific consensus that there is no scientific evidence of adverse impacts on biodiversity or human health resulting from currently used LMOs. LMO products used for the past 25 years are safe, and the biosafety provisions outlined in the Cartagena Protocol and domesticated by the national biosafety laws have helped ensure this result.
However, misinformation and disinformation on the safety of LMOs still present significant challenges that prevent new innovations to contribute towards our shared global development agenda.
Decision makers are not immune to inaccurate information. Myths around health and environmental safety and benefits and impacts on communities around the world are a hindrance to progress. We need to actively challenge these and support commitments to scientific truths by recognizing biotechnology’s many successes as we work towards dispelling these myths through more science-based communications.
After 30 years of the CBD, we should not be debating the proven safety of LMOs at yet another meeting of its parties. While there is scientific consensus it is still important for parties to recognize and highlight the safety of the products of biotechnology, which will encourage their use, development and transfer.
CHALLENGE 3: BRINGING BALANCE INTO THE DEBATE ABOUT RISKS AND BENEFITS OF BIOTECH
All 196 countries that are part of the CBD will seek to comply with Target 17, that is, to:“Establish, strengthen capacity for, and implement measures in all countries to prevent, manage or control potential adverse impacts of biotechnology on biodiversity and human health, reducing the risk of these impacts.”
If the COP15 decides on language that focuses only on risks, then individual countries’ actions involving biotechnology under the framework for the next ten years will likely also focus on risks. This could lead to less private and public investment in biotech research and product development and countries having more trouble meeting their environmental and sustainability goals.
Moreover, a target that focuses only on risks reinforces narratives that only highlight concerns, roadblocks and challenges. Narratives that do not consider positive impacts and frame biotech only around risk, however marginal or non-existent the risk may be, do not inspire public confidence. Public perception can be a significant roadblock for an enabling policy environment that would allow for the development and adoption of biotechnology products for the public good.
CHALLENGE 4: ESTABLISHING A FAIR SCOPE OF REFERENCE FOR TARGET 17
The CBD and its protocols focus on LMOs resulting from modern biotechnology, so too should Target 17. This is important, considering the language “adverse impacts of biotechnology” is much broader than the scope of the CBD and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Both the Convention as well as the Protocol specifically state that they seek to address the potential risks of “living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology” not the “impacts of biotechnology”, which are totally different things.
The Convention’s Article 8G outlines its obligation to establish or maintain means to regulate, manage or control, explicitly “the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology which are likely to have adverse environmental impacts that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account the risks to human health…”
Similarly, the Cartagena Protocol states that its objective is to contribute to ensuring an “adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health…”
Consequently, the target should focus only on the ‘risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology’, which is language directly from the CBD Article 8(g) and Article 1 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Moreover, biotechnology is a broad concept; it includes living modified organisms produced by biotechnology but also tissue culture or small-scale use of biotech, such as fermentation used by communities all over the world. Utilizing the term “biotechnology” will give Target 17 a broad scope, which means that countries might have to require additional oversight for a broader range of biotech applications. Besides, the Target 17 language implies the need to regulate the technology (which it considers to be dangerous) rather than the product/derivative of the technology which is the target of the CBD and its protocol. The implication of this is that member states will be obligated to subject products of all biotechnological processes, including tissue culture, to stringent biosafety regulations.
The CBD and CP do not seek to address the risk of the technology in itself but rather the products produced by the technology. The GBD framework is a guideline for Parties’ and Target 17 will inform their approach to biotechnologies. Consequently, it is key that Target 17 encourages a functional biosafety framework, prioritizing certainty, flexibility and transparency to minimize risk and maximize the benefits of biotech products.
CALL TO ACTION
We ask all pro-science advocates to support us by calling for these 3 action points:
Ensure Consistency: The Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) should be consistent with the CBD and acknowledge that access to and transfer of biotechnologies are essential to attaining the objectives of the CBD.
Promote Innovation: The GBF should encourage its member countries to create a supportive environment for scientific research and innovation to safely use LMOs resulting from biotechnology to address biodiversity loss and contribute to climate adaptation efforts.
Recognize the Benefits: Target 17 should recognize the potential benefits of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology towards biodiversity conservation.
The Alliance for Science believes that COP15 is critical to accelerate innovations which address biodiversity loss and climate change. We are developing more science diplomacy activities, especially those involving young people across the Global South to promote public engagement with the science and the policy challenges that the world must navigate for more sustainable and resilient futures.
Join us by signing our pledge for biodiversity and encourage others to engage and speak up through statements at the COP to ensure that science is not left at the door at this Biodiversity COP.
SIGN our Petition HERE and follow live updates on COP15 on AfS social media.
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 Qaim, M. 2017. Globalisation of Agrifood Systems and Sustainable Nutrition. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 76: 12–21.- 2016. Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. – 2009. The Economics of Genetically Modified Crops. Annual Review of Resource . 2009. The Economics of Genetically Modified Crops. Annual Review of Resource Economics 1: 665–693.