UN urged to demand free access to crop data

Crops Data Sustainability.jpg
Copyright: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT

Speed read

  • A legal framework is needed to make genetic sequences freely available
  • This should be included in the Sustainable Development Goals, says petition
  • Universal access to genome information could transform plant breeding

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A petition has been filed urging the UN to create a legal framework requiring governments to make data from the genetic sequencing of plants freely available.
The move would speed up plant breeding and increase food production for a growing human population, one of the UN’s proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), say the plant scientist and lawyer behind the document.
They want the creation of such a framework to be part of the SDGs, and have submitted their proposal as part of a UN consultation for issues to be included in the 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report, which is due to be launched in June to provide science advice for development.

“Universal access to genome information, needing nothing more than a web browser, will transform plant breeding.”

Norman Warthmann, Australian National University 

The proposal was made last month by Norman Warthmann, a plant geneticist at the Australian National University, and Claudio Chiarolla, a researcher on biodiversity governance at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in France. They warn that most genetic information on crops is collected, analysed and stored in isolation in national databases, and often comprises small samples collected under specific circumstances.
This hampers studies that compare crops across continents and research on how wider environmental variables influence plant growth, they say.
“Universal access to genome information, needing nothing more than a web browser, will transform plant breeding,” says Warthmann. “It will spawn innovation around the world and will enable learning from each other.”
Using genetic data can improve the speed and efficiency of plant breeding compared with classic trial-and-error practices, the scientists say. But for this genome-based approach to be effective, data sets must be built by aggregating and comparing data from large numbers of samples and traits from plants around the world.
This would require free access to these data sets for researchers and breeders from poorer countries, the proposal says.
“If we are to feed nine billion people in 2050 in a sustainable manner, plant breeding must be a decentralised exercise, with breeders efficiently breeding local varieties of a plethora of crops,” says Warthmann. “Information sharing is key for this decentralised work and, in our contribution, we suggest a mechanism [for] how this information sharing can be realised and enforced.”
The UN already has an international treaty in place designed to improve access to physical plant materials. This covers only a few crops, but there are fledgling initiatives aiming to tackle this problem. In addition, most of the plant material access agreements made under the treaty have emerged from developing countries, with Mexico in the lead.

In their plea to the UN, Warthmann and Chiarolla propose applying a copyright licence to plant genome data that would allow it, and any resulting subsets, to be freely shared and manipulated. Such open-source licensing would permit the sharing of information for sustainable development, but still allow the commercial application of this knowledge, they say.
This proposal appears to clash with the 1992 Convention on biological diversity, which says nations must have a choice in whether to distribute and allow the use of their genetic resources, but Chiarolla says their system would recognise these rights.
“With our proposal, we do not neglect the sovereign rights of states over their genetic resources,” he says. “UN member states will have to make an explicit determination on this issue”, meaning they can decide their own position on this.
Access to plant genomes could be of particular interest to countries such as India, where data processing capacities are skyrocketing, but access to commercial data sets remains elusive.
Mukesh Jain, a genomics and biotechnology scientist at the country’s National Institute of Plant Genome Research, says he welcomes the proposal. “In today’s scenario, it is totally unacceptable to restrict the availability of genomic information,” he says.

Jain adds that making national genetic data freely available would not harm businesses that use such data in innovation, as they could still patent any resulting crop varieties. “I feel that industries and private companies have nothing to lose with an open access model of genome sequence data access,” he says. “All the options still remain open to them to run their business.”