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Racing to claim the biodiversity of the seas
Who owns ocean biodiversity? New study reveals how a single company has registered half of all existing patents associated with genes from marine species
• Study highlights the need for greater transparency and equity of patent ownership and activities with respect to marine genetic resources and biodiversity
• Study looks at ownership of marine genetic resources (MGR) patents from the past three decades, and builds a database of species and patents
• Only 10 countries account for 98% of all MGR patents
Attention to blue growth has created a race to claim economic rights on everything in the oceans, from territory to resources. In the past three decades, companies, universities, and other organizations have focused their interest towards one of the smallest units possible to claim: DNA. Marine organisms have the ability to thrive in extremes of pressure, temperate, and chemistry; meaning their DNA could have important implications for humans, such as through biomedical and industrial applications.
However, ownership of associated patents linked to genetic material raises questions about equity and sustainability in working towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
Who actually owns ocean biodiversity? This is an increasingly relevant question, given the legal uncertainties associated with the use of genetic resources from areas beyond national jurisdiction, which cover half of the Earth’s surface
Robert Blasiak, lead author
Blasiak and centre researchers Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Emma Sundström, and Henrik Österblom, along with University of British Columbia colleague Colette Wabnitz, published a study in Science Advances which examines who owns what in terms of marine genetic resources (MGR).
As Jouffray explains, “We investigate how many and what types of marine species are being included in patent claims, by whom, and when. We suggest that identifying the key actors registering patents involving MGRs is a critical step toward ensuring more equitable ocean stewardship, whether through regulation, voluntary industry action, or other mechanisms.”
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Who owns what?
To determine who owns what in terms of marine genetic diversity, the authors created a database, which identified 862 marine species, with a total of 12 998 genetic sequences that were patented under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. "The species being patented range from sperm whales to microscopic archaea," Emma Sundström explains.
Most patents registered are linked to microscopic (73%) organisms, with fish (16%), deep sea hydrothermal organisms (11%), and mollusks (3%) making up the majority of the rest of the patents.
The authors found that 84% of the patents were registered by 221 companies, 12% were registered by universities, and the remaining 4% were registered government bodies or non-profit research institutes.
However, German company BASF has registered 47% of all marine patent sequences, more than all of the other companies combined. As a keystone actor in MGRs, it is important to note that large corporations are known to acquire smaller companies for the primary purpose of claiming ownership of their patent portfolios, while also taking advantage of branches located in countries with weaker institutions and limited monitoring or enforcement capacity.
Equity and owning ocean biodiversity
In 2010, the Nagoya Protocol came into effect, and as Henrik Österblom explains “Within national jurisdiction, the Nagoya Protocol protects countries from exploitative bioprospecting, and is meant to foster greater equity. But there’s a huge missing piece, because two-thirds of the ocean exists beyond national jurisdiction.”
The authors found that only 10 countries make up 98% of where the patents are registered, and the Nagoya Protocol does not apply retroactively, meaning that if another actor has already patented in a country’s jurisdiction, there will be few ways to ensure retroactive benefit sharing.
However, in the other two-thirds of the ocean, known as areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), other challenges are still being addressed. Some countries are advocating for benefit sharing schemes for MGR, while others believe that MGRs should be managed under the principle of freedom of the high seas, suggesting no legal obligations to share benefits of their resource extraction. Some countries, including small island nations, have faced substantial challenges in participating in the ongoing negotiations related to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).
To address this, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray suggests, “States need to increase their commitments to capacity building, including scientific training and collaboration, and make greater use of mechanisms, like a voluntary fund that was established to support participation of delegates during the initial talks on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).”
Negotiations on a new treaty on BBNJ will commence in September 2018.
Cooperation for the ocean’s future
To ensure that MGRs are used and shared equitably and sustainably, the authors highlight that direct engagement is needed with keystone actors, such as BASF. For instance, voluntary environmental programmes, like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, could create industry norms that encourage companies like BASF to commit to more transparency than what is currently required by government regulation.
Furthermore, the authors suggest that sustainable business practices and standards should be set up to encourage equitable and sustainable use. For instance, advocacy campaigns, changes in consumer and employee interest, engagement with the science community, and shareholder activism.
As a final point, lead author Robert Blasiak explains that “Constructive cooperation among scientists, policymakers, and industry actors is needed to develop appropriate access and benefit-sharing mechanisms for MGRs that serve the triple purpose of encouraging innovation, fostering greater equity, and promoting better ocean stewardship.”
The authors accessed a database that contained 38 million records of genetic sequences from GenBank’s PAT division, run by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information. The authors then created their own database with information on species name, patent number, patent data, and the party or parties registering the patent. They did this by capturing individual sequences and by focusing on the ORGANISM field (species name) and JOURNAL field (patent type, year, and registering party) for each sequence, and only patents issued through international patent applications were included.
The data was processed using Anaconda Python distribution software, and Jupyter notebooks, which are available upon request. The database on marine patents created by the authors is also available upon request.
Robert Blasiak is a postdoctoral researcher for the NEREUS programme and focuses on aspects of sustainable management of ocean resources, as well as cooperation and conflict related to ocean management.
Jean-Baptiste Jouffray is PhD candidate at the centre and the Global Economic Dynamics and Biosphere programme (GEDB) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
looking at cross-scale driver interactions in marine social-ecological systems.
Emma Sundström is a systems developer and is involved in different research projects where she uses her programming, text mining, large datasets or geospatial modelling expertise.
Henrik Österblom is deputy science director and a researcher working on globalization and marine social-ecological systems, in particular how fisheries and marine ecosystems are managed.
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