Commentary

The Fight for Ocean Health

NEW YORK – The ocean is changing – and not for the better. Well-established scientific evidence shows that it is becoming emptier, warmer, and more acidic, putting marine life under serious pressure. But there is good news: evidence also indicates that the ocean can regenerate, and the world has already agreed to enable that outcome.

The Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean (SDG 14) was adopted by world leaders in September 2015 as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It includes vital targets, such as mitigating ocean acidification, securing habitat and species protections, reducing pollution substantially, and ending illegal fishing and subsidies that lead to overfishing.

Ultimately, SDG 14 promises to preserve the ocean and ensure its sustainable use in the future. But it can be realized only with bold and urgent action, buttressed by solidarity among governments, citizens, and business.

This week, governments and experts are gathering in New York to begin crafting a global “call for action” to implement SDG 14. The call, which will be launched in June, at the UN’s first-ever Ocean Conference, should include a firm commitment to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030, and ensure that the remaining 70% is sustainably managed. UN member states must also pledge to secure the extension of legal protections to high-seas biodiversity by closing the gaping governance loophole that exposes the ocean to plunder.

There is one more priority area that the call for action must address: climate change. In fact, a healthy ocean will be impossible to secure without also addressing this pressing global challenge. Achieving SDG 14 therefore demands that the international community reaffirm its commitment to the Paris climate agreement, and to announce concrete steps toward achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

To avoid more empty promises, all commitments must be backed up by a clear financing plan and subjected to regular accountability checks. Governments, the UN, and other actors should set a schedule for monitoring and check-ins, to keep delivery of the targets transparent, funded, and on schedule.

To support these efforts, we urge UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a Special Representative for the Ocean, tasked with improving ocean governance and ensuring that the full potential of SDG 14 is realized. Such a representative must be given sufficient resources to do the job.

The ocean has suffered decades of abuse and neglect. It has been treated as a free-for-all garbage bin and race-to-the-bottom buffet. We have financed its destruction, with no regard for the consequences. But those consequences have become impossible to ignore. While we, as previous global ocean commissioners, had to campaign hard in 2014 for the ocean to have its own dedicated global goal, it is now hard to believe that the ocean’s position in the SDGs was ever in question. That is the sense that we should have in 2030, when the targets of SDG 14 are fully met.

The only way to get there is through concerted effort – and not just by the likes of ocean commissioners. People everywhere must stand up and demand real action to ensure the ocean’s regeneration. In short, the ocean must become everyone’s business.

To kick-start that process, we have joined the Ocean Unite network, which is galvanizing conservationists, business leaders, young people, and activists to take advantage of growing interest in these issues and create coalitions that can drive ocean health to the top of political and economic agendas worldwide.

Such efforts are already having an impact, with citizens mobilizing to defend the ocean and policymakers beginning to respond to their calls. Now, it is the business community’s turn to step up.

Business has a clear interest in reversing the decline in ocean health. The GDP derived from the ocean amounts to $2.5 trillion, or 5% of the world’s total GDP. That’s equivalent to the GDP of the world’s seventh-largest economy. The ocean is also the world’s biggest employer, directly supporting the livelihoods of more than three billion people, and is a source of food for over 2.6 billion. Restoring the ocean thus amounts to an unparalleled business opportunity.

But the ocean’s value goes far beyond economics. It provides half of the air we breathe, governs our weather, and helps to support peace and prosperity. The ocean’s future is the world’s future.

At a time when politics threatens to undermine cooperative action on the environment, fighting for our shared global environment is more important than ever. Our responsibility for the ocean’s health is as deep, fundamental, and permanent as our dependence on it. No political consideration can compete with that. Now is the time for all of us – citizens, business, and government – to unite and fight for our ocean.

José María Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, is Co-Chair of the Global Ocean Commission. Pascal Lamy, a former director-general of the World Trade Organization, is a Global Ocean Commissioner. John D. Podesta, Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, is the founder of the Center for American Progress.

The Anti-Science Seed Treaty

STANFORD – In September, the United States ratified the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, known as the International Seed Treaty. Like so many international agreements crafted under the auspices of the United Nations, it is severely flawed. Indeed, the Seed Treaty is a politically correct, anti-technology fiasco.


To be sure, the treaty, which entered into force in 2004, emanates from some laudable intentions. But it is ultimately a jumble of pie-in-the-sky aspirations, translated into draconian legal constraints on the exchange of genetic resources (mainly seeds) among countries. The unreality of the treaty’s goals comes through in the official statement of its objectives: “the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.”

The guiding principle of the Seed Treaty is that genetic resources fall within the “sovereign right” of member states (that is, governments). This amounts to an explicit rejection of the long-standing understanding that genetic resources in plants and animals are the “common heritage of humanity.” It defies the notion that certain global resources, regarded as beneficial to all, should not be unilaterally exploited and monopolized by individuals, states, corporations, or other entities, but rather should be managed in ways that benefit all of humanity.

The Seed Treaty was motivated by fear of “biopiracy” – the pilfering of the world’s genetic resources by agricultural seed companies, which could then claim patents on them and wield monopoly control. But, though accusations of biopiracy may have emotional appeal, impartial analyses have shown that they have little factual basis. In fact, biopiracy is rare – so rare that it can be dealt with directly.

Instead, the world created a baroque, bureaucratic, politicized system that systematically inhibits scientific research, plant breeding, and the creation of intellectual property. The Seed Treaty achieves this by establishing a multilateral system for access to a negotiated list of agricultural genetic resources.

The Seed Treaty also brought under the control of its parties and secretariat the 15 research institutions that comprise the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an influential global research partnership. When a country ratifies the Seed Treaty, it agrees that its own seed banks – in the US, the repository at Fort Collins, Colorado – will adhere to the same rules as the CGIAR centers.

But common rules are little help. Unfortunately, as a result of the Seed Treaty, countries increasingly treat their genetic resources like a dog treats a bone: no sharing allowed, even among their own scientists and plant breeders, while most international exchanges of genetic resources have been shut down over the last 12 years. The CGIAR centers have been able to continue exchanges of genetic resources, but the process is now much more complicated and demanding that it was before the Seed Treaty came into force.

For the US, the precise impact of the Seed Treaty’s implementation is difficult to determine, not least because the treaty contains wishy-washy, ambiguous phrasing that obscures its meaning and requirements. What is clear is that the experience of countries that have implemented the treaty has not been particularly positive, unless those countries have a high tolerance for bureaucratic regulatory regimes that stifle innovation and development in the name of lofty aspirations.

The Seed Treaty is cut from the same anti-capitalist, anti-science, anti-innovation cloth as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It also mirrors the flagrantly unscientific, anti-genetic-engineering Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the CBD. And it has much in common with the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol – yet another anti-genetic-engineering screed, which accomplishes little except to frighten potential entrepreneurs away from agricultural biotechnology. It is overwrought, confusing, and complex – in short, inimical to innovations that could benefit the world’s poor.

The Seed Treaty runs counter to science, agricultural development, and intellectual property rights. That, in the policymaking game, is three strikes – and should be an out. The US Senate, which ratified the Seed Treaty, should reconsider, as Article 32 of the treaty allows. Thereafter, the US State Department would notify the treaty’s secretariat, with official withdrawal taking effect a year later.

President-elect Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, has promised Americans that he will put an end to bad ones. Withdrawal from the Seed Treaty would be an auspicious start to making good on that pledge.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the United States Food and Drug Administration. Drew L. Kershen is an emeritus professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

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