FAQs

Q?

What are genetic resources (GR)?

A.

Human beings use material from the natural world for all kinds of activities. In Canada, we use timber from trees to help us build our homes, and we harvest a variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables for food. Genetic resources (GR) are simply another type of material from the natural world. Genetic resources are genetic material from plants or animals that may be of value to human beings. The unique properties of genetic resources help scientist and researchers create new and improved medicines, seeds, fertilizers, foods, industrial chemicals, and cosmetics. Genetic resources also help us better understand, preserve, and protect plants and animals, as well as how they support the environment and other life forms.

One of the most famous examples of a plant genetic resource are the materials extracted from the roots of Catharanthus roseus, or the Rosy Periwinkle. These materials have been used to develop new treatments for cancer patients suffering from leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 

Q?

What is traditional knowledge (TK)?

A.

Traditional knowledge (TK) refers to knowledge and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. It often forms a core part of a community or a people’s identity, and can take many different forms: how to hunt a particular animal, what plants can be used for medicinal purposes, or the correct way to build a shelter, for example. Indigenous peoples and local communities around the world, including the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, possess a vast amount of traditional knowledge. This knowledge is important because it helps us to understand and sustainably protect our natural environment, and because it helps us to understand these rich and varied communities and their worldviews.

Q?

What is Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS)?

A.

Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) is an important area of law that is related to both genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Put simply, ABS describes the various ways in which genetic resources may be accessed by “users,” including researchers, corporations or other entities, and how any benefits resulting from the use of the resource are to be shared between users and the people or countries that provide the resource (“providers”). Where applicable, ABS schemes also govern access and use of the traditional knowledge associated with the genetic resource.

For example, a researcher who works for a pharmaceutical company may have learned that a particular plant has medicinal properties. This information may come from the traditional knowledge or practices of the Aboriginal peoples on whose lands the plant is found.

Under an Access and Benefit Sharing arrangement, the researcher contacts the Aboriginal community to obtain their Prior Informed Consent (PIC) to access the resource, including how it will be extracted and used. They will then negotiate a series of Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) under an agreement or contract spelling out exactly what will happen with any benefits that flow from the use of that resource, whether commercial (e.g. revenue from the sale of a new drug) or non-commercial (e.g. the sharing of any knowledge derived from the research).

By using Access and Benefit Sharing agreements, users and providers of genetic resources ensure that the use of genetic resources and any associated traditional knowledge is governed by the fundamental principles of fairness and equity. As well, it encourages Indigenous peoples and local communities to develop their traditional knowledge, and to play a stewardship role in the conservation of biological diversity and associated genetic resources. These principles were first articulated in the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity.

You can see a model ABS agreement from Australia here.

Q?

What is the Convention on Biological Diversity?

A.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international agreement with three main goals:

 

  1. The conservation of biodiversity
  2. The sustainable use of its components
  3. Fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources

 

The CBD specifically articulates and recognizes the dependence of many Indigenous communities on biodiversity, and the unique role played by these communities in understanding, and helping to preserve, the natural world.

 

Of particular importance is Article 8(j) of the CBD, which requires that state parties to the CBD undertake to “respect, preserve and maintain” the traditional knowledge of Indigenous communities to better promote biodiversity and sustain the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples.

 

Canada has signed and ratified the CBD, expressing its consent to be bound by the Convention as a matter of law. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), which administers the CBD as a crucial aspect of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) is located in Montreal, Canada.

Q?

What is the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing?

A.

The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing is a supplementary agreement to the CBD that came into force in October of 2014. It provides a legal framework to help implement the third goal of the CBD, namely the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources; in short, it codifies the ABS process. The Protocol covers genetic resources, as well as related traditional knowledge by spelling out clear requirements for both users and providers of genetic resources.

At the moment, Canada has yet to sign the Nagoya Protocol. Canada argues that there has not been an adequate national effort to  prepare for the implementation of the Protocol into domestic law, and that further consultation with stakeholders, including Aboriginal peoples, is required.

Q?

Are any genetic resources not covered by the Nagoya Protocol?

A.

The Nagoya Protocol does not cover human genetic resources, nor does it cover those genetic resources located or obtained in areas beyond national jurisdictions. This latter factor presents unique challenges, especially given the abundance of marine genetic resources located in these “sovereignty-free” zones. We discuss some of these challenges and opportunities on the blog.

Q?

What are Competent National Authorities (CNAs)?

A.

Article 13 of the Nagoya Protocol requires each state party to designate one or more Competent National Authorities (CNAs), which are responsible for granting access to users of their genetic resources. CNAs also represent providers of genetic resources on a local and/or national level. What constitutes a CNA and how CNAs operate are both governed by domestic legislation. The Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council has declared in its Petkoutkoyek Statement that individual Aboriginal nations should be considered CNAs for the purpose of ABS in Canada, should the Nagoya Protocol be ratified by the federal government.

Q?

What other international forums are concerned with ABS?

A.

In addition to the UNEP and the CBD Secretariat, there are a number of international organizations (intergovernmental and non-governmental civil society organizations) and forums that work in ABS. They include:

 

  1. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), particularly its Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore. You can read more about the most recent IGC conference on Genetic Resources on our blog.
  2. The Food and Agricultural Organization International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture’s multilateral system of benefit sharing for designated plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
  3. Related to (2) is the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIARS) International Agricultural Research Centre (IARC), a collaborative public-private research consortia that practices aspects of access and benefit sharing over plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
  4. The Union for Ethical Bio-Trade (UEBT), an international non-profit association spun out of the United Nations that promotes sustainable business growth, local development and biodiversity conservation (including compliance with the Nagoya Protocol) among its many member companies in the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, cosmetic, and food industries. The UEBT signed a memorandum of understanding with the CBD Secretariat in 2008 to encourage the promotion of biodiversity best practices across the entire biotechnology industry.
  5. The ABS Capacity Development Initiative, funded by the French, German, Danish, Norwegian, and EU governments, and based in Eschborn, Germany, which supports legal and regulatory capacity building efforts on ABS in developing countries. The Initiative has an outstanding collection of visual and print resources, all publicly available online.

Q?

Who are the key Canadian government stakeholders in ABS?

A.

Each state party to the CBD is required to establish and administer a “national focal point” (NFP) to facilitate ABS, and to serve as a central clearinghouse of information for potential users and providers of genetic resources. In Canada, the CBD NFP is currently housed in the National Wildlife Section of the Canadian Wildlife Service, within the Department of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC). You can contact Canada’s NFP here.

 

There are a number of other federal departments and agencies whose mandates encompass the ABS file or on related policy issues (e.g. patent law, treaty negotiation, environmental regulation), including:

 

  • Global Affairs Canada
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Parks Canada
  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
  • Natural Resources Canada
  • Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada
  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Justice Canada
  • Federal regional development agencies (e.g. ACOA)
  • Canada Intellectual Property Office (CIPO)

 

Equivalent departments and agencies in each province also play an important role in ABS, as provincial governments are constitutionally responsible for the regulation of natural resources.

 

A more comprehensive listing of the various federal and provincial departments and agencies can be accessed by viewing our stakeholders page.