A global summit on biodiversity has sparked debate over whether advances in the life sciences are encouraging biopiracy
Outside the conference hall of the Moon Palace, a luxury Cancun resort, warm waves lapped white sands, bathed in a pink Mexican sunset. Inside, close to two hundred delegates to the United Nations’ 2016 biodiversity conference huddled around a doorway, desperate to get into a windowless room for the final evening’s negotiating session. In the end, most of the crowd made it into room, to witness twenty or so country delegates hammer out compromise text late into the night. This wasn’t what they had expected from a UN summit. But the issue under discussion – synthetic biology – is an unusual topic.
Synthetic biology is often described as the application of engineering principles to biology. Some see it a fundamentally new approach to biology; others as the next stage of biotechnology; and others as simply an exercise in rebranding. As social scientists researching this field, we’ve seen the confusion of synthetic biologists as to why a treaty about biodiversity is attempting to govern their research.
The reason lies in the broad mandate of the UN’s convention on biological diversity (CBD). One of the largest international environmental agreements, the CBD’s three objectives include conservation of biodiversity; sustainable use of biodiversity; and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources of biodiversity.
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