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Exploiting and protecting genetic resources

Katie Beckett of the Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy explains why the food and beverage industry needs to comply with the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing of genetic resources.

Biological resources, whether plant, animal, or microbial, are used by the food and beverage industry to put foods in our shops and on to our tables. Over time, the range of products available to the consumer has exploded, growing in complexity with an assorted range of applications targeting specific consumer profiles. With everything from novel exotic ingredients, such as Baobab fruit powder and spirulina, to pre-biotic digestive supplements and innovative flavours, the food and beverage offering has never been so diverse. Widespread trends, such as health and wellness, natural and organic, mean that  these new innovative ingredients are no longer restricted to niche health stores, but can be found on the shelves of supermarkets indicating the change in consumer attitudes to novel ingredients and products. Consumers are making increasingly informed choices about the foods they consume based on criteria, such as ingredient provenance and nutritional benefits.

Just as our purchasing power and knowledge have increased, significant technological advances have been achieved, which have allowed the food and beverage industry to develop new applications and products, such as functional foods, bioactive ingredients and novel processing techniques. Biotechnological applications in the food and beverage sector, such as the use of novel enzymes from microorganisms in the production of new flavours or colours, are research intense and of increasing interest and occurrence.

The third objective of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) strives to achieve the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of such genetic resources. Adopted in 2010 and entering into force in October 2014, the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS) recognises the rights of countries to regulate access to and utilisation of their genetic resources through national legislation. The UK became Party to the Protocol on 22nd May 2016, joining 83 other countries around the world, and is now preparing to take a seat at the table of the 2nd Meeting of the Parties in Cancun, Mexico, in December 2016.

Spirulina flakes

Adding value to biotechnological resources through research studies and the application of advanced technologies could result in the next breed of tomato, brewing yeast or sports nutrition product. The process of value addition through research and development not only has the potential to place a new product on the market, but also creates incentive to protect biological diversity for future use and as a source of revenue for the provider of the starting  resource.

Countries that are Party to the Nagoya Protocol, as well as those entering into the ratification process, are now actively preparing and updating legislation  to address and implement the provisions of the Protocol. Each Party can decide whether to put in place access measures for the genetic resources over which they exercise sovereign rights, while also implementing user compliance measures. Those that choose to set in place access measures have opportunities to nonmonetary benefits resulting from utilisation to support growth and development, with the ultimate objective being the conservation of biological diversity. By employing effective legislation, which not only protects sovereign rights but also facilitates access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, countries are in a prime position to attract investment and receive benefits attributed to the resources being utilised.

The UK became Party to the Protocol on 22nd May 2016, joining 83 other countries around the world.

The UK is implementing the Nagoya Protocol through Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014 on compliance measures for users (EU Regulation) and is in turn enforcing the EU Regulation  through The Nagoya Protocol Compliance Regulations (2015). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the policy lead for ABS in the UK and Regulatory Delivery, a directorate of The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is responsible for implementing and enforcing it. Regulatory Delivery’s primary focus in the early days of implementation is on raising awareness of ABS among the varied sectors and stakeholders that it may apply to. This serves to educate both industry and the regulator and provides the basis for future enforcement of the legislation. There has been no change to the legal framework within which we operate as a result of the EU referendum. We remain signatories of the EU Treaties and the rights and obligations contained in them continue to apply. The UK remains Party to the Nagoya Protocol in its own right.

The estimated revenue of the functional foods market in 2016 is US$ 69.45bn [1]. Research and development using genetic resources, such as fruits or algae, may generate new ingredients and products with significant market applications. It is this utilisation of genetic resources and/or associated traditional knowledge that forms the cornerstone of the Nagoya. Protocol and which may have relevance for the sector. The food and beverage sector is not alone in its use of biological material as genetic resources, with overlapping  areas of interest in sectors including plant breeding, animal breeding and biotechnology. The cosmetic  and pharmaceutical sectors are also seeing increasing alignments with food and beverage, with blurring lines between some product applications.

Different activities within the food and beverage sector may be relevant and while some scientists are on the hunt for the next new innovative active ingredient, others are addressing the increasingly critical issues of food security and future conservation of biological diversity as sources of food. The plant breeding sector is using wild crop relatives to provide critical pools of genetic variation that may hold answers to crop improvement in the face of new environmental challenges and help to tackle current and future food security threats [2]. The Nagoya Protocol acknowledges the special nature of genetic resources for food and agriculture, recognising the role of these resources in addressing food security. Where genetic resources are covered by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), they fall out of scope of the Nagoya Protocol, avoiding duplication of access and benefit sharing requirements.

Companies and organisations running research and development programmes involving genetic resources should now review their activities in relation to the scope of the EU Regulation and the legislation of the countries that are providing the resources.

For those companies and research institutes whose activities fall in scope of the Protocol and applicable legislation, there are tools available to assist compliance. The European Commission has released ABS Horizontal Guidance [3] which has cross-sector relevance and is designed to help stakeholders assess their activities in relation to the scope of the Protocol and  the EU Regulation. In addition, sector-specific guidelines are under development, including a version for the food and beverage industry, and will delve into more detail specific to activities within the sector. At an international level, the Access and Benefit Sharing Clearing House (ABS-CH) is an online platform which is designed to be the primary source of information for both providers and users of genetic resources. The legislative and administrative measures put in place by Parties to the Protocol will be made available through the ABS Clearing House, along with key contact details, national websites and other supporting information.

The food and beverage sector has transformed in recent years with the growing health and wellness trend, the increased demand for natural, sustainable and ethical supply chains, the application of new technologies and the introduction of new ingredient categories and products. Companies and organisations running research and development programmes involving genetic resources should now review their activities in relation to the scope of the EU Regulation and the legislation of the countries that are providing the resources. In these early days of implementation, companies and organisations have the opportunity to get to grips with the legislation and their obligations. As with any new legislation, there will be new challenges to address, but the sector has the skills and capacity to address these challenges and continue to bring novel, innovative biodiversity based products to the market.

Regulatory Delivery aims to support ABS understanding and compliance among UK businesses and organisations and is delivering this through direct sector engagement. Access and benefit sharing has the potential to bring opportunities to both providers and users of genetic resources; perhaps the next new innovative product will be the result of a successful ABS negotiation and agreement.

Katie Beckett, Regulatory Delivery, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Email:  Regulatory Delivery -

Access and Benefit Sharing Clearing House -



2. Vincent et al. (2013) A prioritised crop wild relative inventory to help underpin global food security. Biological Conservation 167: 265-275


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