Kenya’s Lake Bogoria and the Global Biotech Industry

Unep’s news desk recently reported that Kenya’s Lake Bogoria contains an unusual array of microbes and micro organisms from which enzymes have been produced for use in antibiotics and cleaning products. The, tiny organisms like those found in Bogoria are the basis of the multi-million dollar global biotech industry.

The Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing, addresses “biopiracy” of genetic resources; that is, their biotechnological utilization in violation of either the provider country legislation or mutually agreed contractual obligations. Biopiracy is defined as a problem resulting from a distributive conflict between provider and user countries, the practical difficulties of monitoring the utilization of genetic resources in a transnational context, and the pervasive scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the problem. Kenya has ratified the Protocol.

The local people therefore stand to benefit from this discovery. The Endorois people, have lived beside, and been custodians of the lake for centuries. The lake has deep spiritual and cultural significance for them. “Microbes or micro-organisms are natural capital,” says UN Environment ecosystems expert Levis Kavagi.

It will be interesting to see how benefits derived from the harvesting and use of the microbes and micro organisms will be shared between the researchers and the local communities. Kenya is yet to pass laws at national level that will help in the implementation of the provisions of the Nagoya Protocol. this is turn puts the local communities in a precarious position.

In the past, a British University harvested some micro-organisms from the lake, and in 1995 sold them to companies in the Netherlands and the United States. Those companies were later sued by the Kenyan government for not sharing the financial benefits of their subsequent innovations with Kenya. this was before the Nagoya Protocol had been put in place.

UN Environment and partners are working with the Endorois and other communities to ensure they receive their fair share of any resources from the lakes. They also want people to look after the ecosystems.


Protecting Planet Earth from Military & Non-Military Space Threats

Igor Ashurbeyli, Founder in Chief of ROOM: The Space Journal & Chairman of Moscow based International Expert Society on Space Threat Defence, gave a keynote address on the protection of Earth from Military & Non-Military Space Threats.
He pointed out seven types of space related risks as:

  1. Sun storms and sun flares, known as coronal mass ejections.
  2. Changes in the Earth’s magnetosphere which result in the destruction of the protective shield that could deflect coronal mass ejections.
  3. Potentially dangerous asteroids and comets, which could impact Earth and lead to mass destruction of humanity.
  4. Man-made space debris.
  5. Climate change resulting from the effects of human technology, industrialisation and solar radiation on Earth’s atmosphere.
  6. Cosmic radiation – Earth is constantly affected not only by solar radiation but also by cosmic rays from novas, supernovas and pulsars. This also needs to be taken into consideration.
  7. Biological threats from inside meteors and other small bodies that reach the planet.

He noted that in order to create an effective method of protection from space-based threats, close international cooperation is essential. Any one sided action on behalf of one country, even the richest and most technologically advanced, can be faced with multiple legal, political and strategic barriers.

Ashurbeyli further noted that technology alone – despite all its real and promised benefits for humankind – means absolutely nothing without a higher goal and vision. Further progress in near-Earth space and global space exploration calls for the return of altruistic motives, and the return of inspiration and a sense of human community.

There’s need for an internationally acceptable control system with completely transparent intellectual property rights and open architecture. Funding and the right to use it must belong to all mankind – encompassing advanced nations and developing countries alike, with no restrictions or boundaries.

It will require a new approach to international politics which Ashurbeyli named ‘astropolitics’ – something which would need to encompass not just major aspects of international relationships but legal matters of a much more human scale.

Space Exploration

Next Steps to Mars: Deep Space Habitats

Statement from Brian Babin, US Representative & Chairman of Committee on science, Space & Technology

The exploration of space, particularly human exploration of Mars, has intrigued generations around the world. Our sister planet holds many mysteries, and quite possibly, the keys to our past and our future. The profound goal of putting humans on Mars and perhaps establishing a settlement there, fuels our desire to push the boundaries of what is possible and to reach far beyond our own planet.

Space exploration is in our DNA. Americans of all ages watched on their black and white TVs as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon. Our collective interests have not waned since that time. However, we now watch in full color and high definition as we launch off our planet, land a rover on Mars, and see our astronauts on the International Space Station do an EVA to assemble an orbital space laboratory.

Enabled by the unwavering dedication and hard work of countless thousands who have contributed to the historical successes and immeasurable benefits spaceflight and exploration have brought humanity.

Last year’s cinematic blockbuster, The Martian, based on the book written by Andy Weir, one of our witnesses today, wrote about the challenges an astronaut faced in order to survive the hostile environment of Mars. This concept is directly related to the topic of our hearing – examining the challenges and discussing what it is going to take to turn this science fiction into reality…as we hope to do in the years ahead.

One of the foremost requirements for success in such a profound endeavor is the support of Congress…and undoubtedly, bipartisan, bicameral support is strongly behind this goal.

In fact, bipartisan support for our spaceflight and exploration programs is so strong, that the 2016 NASA Authorization Act passed the House by a unanimous voice vote. In this turbulent political climate, a vote like that is exceptional for any Agency. The House’s intent is clear and I strongly urge our colleagues in the Senate to join us by taking up and passing a NASA Authorization bill this year. Doing so, in this election year, is particularly important as it will provide NASA programs the stability needed through the uncertainty that results during the transition of Administrations.
One of the most critical capabilities needed to sustain humans for a journey to Mars is a habitat. Without a viable habitat to protect our astronauts from the inhospitable environment of space, we cannot achieve our goals for human deep space exploration.

Congress demonstrated its strong support of space exploration last year in passing the most significant update to commercial space law in decades and by appropriating robust and increased funding levels for NASA exploration programs.

In the 2016 appropriations, Congress directed NASA to invest no less than $55 million for the development of a “habitation augmentation module to maximize the potential of the SLS/Orion architecture in deep space” and to develop a prototype module no later than 2018.

Astronaut Scott Kelly’s nearly year-long mission aboard the International Space Station has provided substantial scientific data which we continue to assess, related to the physiological and psychological impacts humans face during long-duration space missions. However, much research still needs to be done to develop systems and operations to mitigate these impacts for sustaining crew health; for this reason, it is critical that the ISS be fully utilized through 2024.

We know what goal we want to achieve – putting humans on Mars. What continues to be unclear…is the detailed plan? How are we going to accomplish this bold and challenging goal? What are the requisite precursor missions, the technologies, sustaining systems, and habitation requirements and current capabilities?

While the ISS continues to provide us with a critical test-bed for technology development, we need to be careful not to use it as a “crutch” – a convenient low- Earth orbit safe haven, should it be needed during a deep space mission or flight test through 2024. What if we didn’t have this back-up capability, as was the case during the Apollo missions to the Moon. What’s our back-up plan…do we have one? Until the detailed plan is outlined, there are many “unknowns” but what we do know is that NASA WILL need habitation and there are many questions that surround this requirement.

How will NASA acquire habitation? How will development be funded? Will NASA develop the capability by contracting with a company on a cost-plus basis as it did for programs in past? Or will they seek to procure habitation as a service by leveraging previous development work? Will NASA use public-private partnerships? And if so, how will NASA divide the investment? How will it treat the intellectual property? And will the taxpayer get a deal on the price if it contributes to the development?
We have tremendous “lessons learned” related to systems development along with the pros and cons of various acquisition approaches. Regardless of the ultimate decision, the acquisition parameters and requirements must be clear before ANY action is taken…NASA simply doesn’t have the time or the budget to “experiment” on unproven acquisition models. It’s long past time to apply the “lessons learned” and make the decision based on what is the most assured and efficient way for NASA to acquire this capability.

Whatever NASA proposes, I sincerely hope it will be in the best interests of the taxpayer. It would be a shame if we repeat the mistakes of the past…government paying for the development of habitation capabilities, then turns around and pays again to procure the service from the same provider. NASA’s decisions on “make” or “buy” will be critical.

Is it possible that industry may be able to provide turn-key cost-effective services that are developed with minimal taxpayer support? Is there a market for low-Earth orbit habitats, sufficient to support a post-ISS paradigm, which can be leveraged for deep- space habit requirements?

We are an exceptional nation of “doers” and as we forge a path through the high- ground of space on our journey to Mars, I have strong faith in the ingenuity of American scientists, engineers and the entire industry to address the challenges posed by deep space exploration and to develop the spaceflight systems needed to reach our goals in a safe, sustainable and affordable way. I’m pleased to welcome our witnesses and I look forward to hearing their perspectives as to how NASA should consider acquiring habitation goods and services to meet future mission requirements.

Thank you all for participating. And Mr. Weir, I would like to personally thank you for your captivating work, The Martian…it has everybody talking about Mars…which I believe brings us one step closer to making science fiction, science fact.

Adapting to Climate Change in Africa through Plant Genetic Diversity

Interdisciplinary teams from Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Malawi, Senegal and Uganda met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to implement seed sharing and use for climate change adaptation, food security and poverty alleviation.

The teams discussed ways to work together to implement two international agreements; the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Plant Treaty) and the Nagoya Protocol; to conserve and exchange plant genetic resources with each other and with the rest of the world, and share related benefits.

Alternative varieties or replacement crops that can grow in the changing climatic conditions are a necessity for African farmers, as  the International Panel on Climate Change predicts that agricultural production is set to decline, with yields of major crops in Africa declining by up to 8% .

Mahlet Teshome, Biosafety Expert – Environmental Law, African Union Commission said:

“Africa is blessed with an abundance and variety of genetic resources. The manner in which these genetic resources are used to meet the challenges of the region such as climate change adaptation, food security and poverty alleviation is key. The AU Guidelines cover the range of benefits that may be derived from genetic resources, including plant genetic resources, and proposes access procedures that ensure benefits are shared between providers and users of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. The guidelines and the provisions for Africa are perfectly in sync with the AU’s Agenda 2063 which aspires to a prosperous continent with the means and resources to drive its own development.”

While Andreas Drews,  an expert in ABS Capacity Development Initiative said:”It is really important for African countries to think through how to bring access and benefit-sharing (ABS) into the national implementation processes in a coherent way. Since the beginnings of agriculture farmers and local communities have exchanged their seeds to improve and diversify crops they grow to adapt to changing conditions. These days, we are all faced with new environmental challenges, such as increased flooding, heat and drought – and that is why everyone needs crop diversity: to be able to maintain food security for everyone.”

Biodiversity Law in Brazil

The Brazilian government enacted the Biodiversity Law (Federal Law 13, 123/2015), which came into force on the 17th of November 2015.

The law established rules for; access to genetic heritage, protection  of and access to associated traditional knowledge & benefit sharing for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.