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Access to Food Data Must Be Equitable and Open

Since the Foundation became engaged in helping the world better understand what is in our food, we have recognized the importance of the international debate on digital sequencing information (DSI) and how it relates to biodiversity loss, national environmental resource sovereignty, and international benefits-sharing. A debate which, until a few weeks ago, threatened to upend years of work at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But what is DSI and how does it impact people and the planet?

What is DSI?

DSI is the data derived from biological materials like plants, animals, and even viruses. For example, the data representing the genome of any particular food, like a carrot or an apple, is considered its DSI. Some interpretations of DSI also include chemical constituents and other digital descriptions of biological resources.

DSI allows us to understand the breadth of biodiversity around the world. As ecosystems and species shift and sometimes die out, DSI can provide a record of genetic diversity that may be lost.

Right now, there are trillions of DSI data points available to freely download from a number of databases. Researchers around the world upload DSI to these databases and in turn use the information to develop innovative technologies, foods, and medicines. However, until now, there hasn’t been a clear, multilateral way to share that information while ensuring that the communities from which the source biological material originated also benefit.

Identifying the Path Forward for Equitable Use of DSI

Discussions about DSI have been at a standstill since 2019, when the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Treaty) Governing Body meeting failed to reach consensus on the issue. Parties to the CBD also could not agree on how to regulate DSI at the international level. Suggested solutions ranged from DSI being entirely out of scope of the CBD, to setting up bilateral benefits-sharing agreements such as the system established by the Nagoya Protocol.

Now, aided by efforts supported by The Rockefeller Foundation Food Initiative, the global community has agreed on a landmark framework on the use of DSI. Access to and benefits-sharing from the use of DSI have been included as an important part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) which was just adopted at the Convention on Biological Diversity 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15). The GBF sets out targets to halt biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems and protect Indigenous rights between now and 2030.

Breaking an International Stalemate

Through the Foundation’s work as a funding partner of the Periodic Table of Food Initiative (PTFI), we saw an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving around DSI and between the parties to the CBD. PTFI is an effort to create comprehensive and standardized food composition data (including DSI) and methods that are shared openly and equitably as a global resource. Through support to Meridian Institute, the Foundation helped to convene the relevant stakeholders, including users of DSI from the public and private sectors, parties to the CBD and other critical treaties, and indigenous and local rights holders, in a series of informal consensus-building meetings.

Perhaps the most pivotal of those meetings was hosted at the Foundation’s Bellagio Center in May 2022. During this meeting, stakeholders were able to share their concerns and perspectives about the use of DSI and think collaboratively about the best path forward. This gathering at Bellagio, along with critical meetings at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and in partnership with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, helped to set negotiators up for success at COP15.

The agreement reached at the CBD represents the end of a years-long international stalemate on DSI and allows researchers and innovators to continue to access DSI while providing renewed potential to funnel tens of billions of dollars to stop biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems. The agreement also establishes a process to define a multilateral system that includes a global fund for the sharing of monetary benefits. In addition, parties will discuss non-monetary benefits-sharing, technology transfer, and capacity strengthening for indigenous peoples and local communities.

The multilateral system will launch at COP16 in 2024, to be held in Turkey. Many of the topics discussed at the convenings supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and Meridian Institute have been incorporated into the formal agenda for the CBD parties to discuss in advance of COP16.

Looking Ahead

The proposed multilateral benefits-sharing system with open access to DSI will help PTFI and projects like it to operate seamlessly in countries around the world. In fact, a key part of PTFI’s mission is setting up capacity strengthening through Centers of Excellence and laboratories across the globe to provide scientists the tools they need to understand the composition of the foods most important to their regions.

In addition, the Foundation is supporting PTFI to establish Good Food U, which will equip local scientists with education, fellowships, and other forms of capacity-strengthening so they can make the best possible use of the tools and data derived from their regions. Providing world-class resources and education to scientists around the world will allow all of us to understand and preserve global biodiversity while supporting human and planetary health.

In the coming years, we hope that the community-centered and -led approaches of PTFI and Good Food U will serve as models to other institutions and projects utilizing DSI. Strengthening the capacity for scientific discovery benefits both local stakeholders and the global community – bringing us closer to a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable food future for all.