Accessing Genetic Resources in Canada

What is Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS)?

'Access' means how someone gets to use a genetic resource that they do not own, for example a scientist seeking the permission of a government department to collect samples on Crown Land. In this case, the scientist is gaining access to a genetic resource by getting permission from the Crown to collect samples from their land.

Benefit sharing means how, if a genetic resource is used as described above, the provider and the user of the genetic resource share the benefits arising from the use of the genetic resource. For instance, in the example mentioned above, if the scientist finds that a plant they accessed is rare, or produces a good chemical product, then there are benefits in knowing more about the plant, or from the production and sale of the chemical.

A third part in Access and Benefit Sharing is referred to as mutually agreed terms. This means that the person who gives permission to access, and the person who wants permission to collect must both agree to the "terms" under which collection can take place as well as agreeing to the terms for sharing benefits from any research done with the genetic resource. The government department responsible might agree that there is benefit in increased scientific knowledge about a particular plant. In this case the benefit from the use of the genetic resource (increased scientific knowledge of a particular plant) is shared through the publication of the scientist's research, and the increased knowledge which comes from it. The boxes below provide some examples of how this could work.

How ABS could work:

Example 1

A researcher for a drug company wants to collect some microorganisms from a hot spring on federal Crown Land to see if those microorganisms might be a source of a new medicine.

The researcher contacts the government department that manages the land to seek permission to access the genetic resource (i.e. microorganism samples).

The researcher and the federal government department in charge of the land come to an agreement on what the genetic resource is to be used for, how the sampling is to be conducted, and how the benefits which could come from this research (for example, a new medicine) could be shared.

There could be a number of ways in which this happens - the generation of new knowledge, the development of new medicines to help cure illnesses, or, in some cases, an agreement to share some of the economic benefits which could come from commercializing a new medicine.

In this example, the access happens when the Federal government allows the researcher access to the GR, and the benefit sharing happens through the agreement between the researcher and the federal government to share the benefits from the use of that GR.

Example 2:

A researcher wants to study a particular plant which grows in the Canadian north. The researcher believes that knowing more about the genetic properties of this plant will help us to come up with better ways to protect that plant.

The researcher contacts the government ministry responsible for granting access to that land. The researcher and the government department agree that the researcher can collect a certain amount of the plant. They also agree on how that genetic resource can be used (i.e. for research purposes). The researcher and the government department agree that the benefits from this research will be that knowing more about this plant will help to come up with a better way to protect that plant and that the researcher will provide their findings to the government department to help in their conservation efforts.

In this scenario, the access happens when the researcher is granted permission by the government department to collect samples of the plant. The benefit which arises from the use of that genetic resource (i.e. the genes of the plant) is the information which helps the government department in better understanding how they can protect that plant. The sharing of the benefits happens when the researcher and the government mutually agree that the researcher will provide their research findings to the government department.

Example 3:

A researcher from a chemical company thinks that they might be able to develop a new kind of glue from enzymes produced by a certain kind of clam which grows in Canadian waters. They think that this new kind of glue could be turned into a commercial product which would benefit their company.

The researcher gets permission to access the genetic resource (the clam's enzyme) from the government department responsible for the waters in which the clam is found. The researcher and the government department agree on what the benefits which could come out of this access would be, and how they would be shared. For instance, they could agree that if the glue that the researcher develops does become a commercial product, the company would share a small part of this economic benefit with the government department which provided access to the genetic resource.

In this scenario the access happens when the researcher gets permission to access the clam they want to get an enzyme from. The benefit sharing happens when the two parties develop mutually agreed terms on how the benefits from the use of that genetic resource could be shared - in this case, it could be through a small monetary payment if a commercial product is developed based on the genetic resource.

Frequently, the economic and social benefits of research using genetic resources (for instance in the development of new medicines) can only be realized through cooperation between providers and users of genetic resources. In light of this, the Convention on Biological Diversity calls for countries to establish conditions to facilitate access to genetic resources, to ensure that it is based on the informed consent of the provider country before access takes place, and that access is granted on terms mutually agreed by the provider and the user countries. Policies which deal with access to genetic resources and the sharing of the benefits which arise from their use are usually called access and benefit sharing policies, or ABS.

In 2002, the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Bonn Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and Fair and Equitable Sharing of the Benefits Arising out of their Utilization, as voluntary guidance to countries in developing their domestic Access and Benefit Sharing policies. The Bonn Guidelines also introduced a direct link between genetic resources and the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal and local communities which is related to those genetic resources.

Many countries, such as Australia, South Africa and India have established domestic policies on access to genetic resources and sharing benefits arising from their use, and many others are in the process of developing their domestic policies. More than 100 countries have ratified the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which includes an ABS regime for specified genetic resources for food and agricultural uses. In addition there is ongoing work under the Convention on Biological Diversity to develop an international regime on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing for Genetic Resources by 2010.

More information

The links below will provide more information on ABS in general, including information on how some other countries have approached the issue. These links are provided for information purposes only.

To see how ABS has been approached in other countries, see the following sites: