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Expanding rapidly our marine understanding

Expanding rapidly our marine understanding

Picture: Rachael Ritchie at OECD, expert in marine biotechnology.

Early results of metagenomic studies attest to the bio-diversity of marine bioresources, revealing them to be a significant source of new biological and chemical processes and products from which new bioactive compounds can be isolated, modeled or created, says Rachael Ritchie, OECD.

Blue Frontier Magazine: What are the main objectives of the OECD Global Forum on Biotechnology in Vancouver?
 

Rachael Ritchie: This event is the first time the OECD has taken a systematic look at what marine biotechnology can contribute to the resolution of the “grand challenges” of food and fuel security, population health, green growth and sustainable industries.
   Thanks to advances in science and technology over the last decade, our understanding of the marine environment and marine ecosystems is expanding rapidly. Technologies like metagenomics, are bridging the gap between those few marine organisms we can culture and the vast majority which we cannot.  Early results of metagenomic studies attest to the bio-
diversity of marine bio-resources, revealing them to be a significant source of new biological and chemical processes and products from which new bioactive compounds can be isolated, modeled or created.
   In the past, marine biotechnology has yielded some notable and wide-ranging advances in fields as diverse as medicine, cosmetics, nutraceuticals and food production, and in industrial application areas like biorefining. Interest in this field as a new source of innovation and economic growth in many countries is driving the development of government efforts to realise this potential.  While interest in marine biotechnology is increasing each year, there is a growing recognition that the viability and diversity of marine bio-resources is threatened by a number of direct and indirect causes. These threats to ocean bio-resources are very real and, in most cases, the damage done is irreversible. Governments have an interest in ensuring the ocean resources are developed in a productive and sustainable manner.
   We hope the Global Forum will  provide a forum to discuss the potential of marine biotechnology to provide solutions to global grand challenges and to identify areas which may present a barrier to the development of marine biotechnology.
   We hope also to consider the role of government in creating an enabling environment for marine biotechnology, and the regulations and the treaties that can affect the large-scale application of marine biotechnology.  Finally we hope to identify those areas in which the OECD can provide further policy insight and expertise.

BFM: What are the main questions to be answered during the two days in Vancouver?

RR: There are two main questions we hope to consider during the Forum. They are interdependent, thought each may be viewed as a separate side of the same coin.
   The first is “what is the potential of the ocean that can be realised by marine biotechnology?”  There have been great advances in science and technology and in ocean exploration in the last decade. These advances have improved our understanding of marine bio-resources and  are allowing us to understand and access marine ecosystems and bio-resources at the molecular level. Marine bio-resources which have been remained difficult to    access and untapped, are now being used to produce a rich source of innovative products and services.
   At the same time, marine bio-resources also provide a number of important ecosystem services for the planet and its inhabitants that must be maintained. So the second question relates to sustainability:  “how can we extract value from resources that are spread widely across a complex marine ecosystem while maximising the integrity and sustainability of that ecosystem for future generations?”
   These two questions provide both the framework and title of our Forum: Enabling Solutions for Ocean Productivity and Sustainability.

BFM: How can this event address the main issues for the marine biotechnology?

RR:  We believe there are a number of issues that need to be addressed if we are to enable development of the field: for example, issues related to access to marine resources, issues related to benefit sharing; and issues relating to the development of research infrastructures and governance of the field.  Certainly, we cannot hope to address fully all of the main issues for marine biotechnology.  
   We do hope, however, that -- in convening experts and stakeholders from the private and public sectors from around the world -- we can begin to articulate those areas of the field which could benefit from new policy work to enable the use science and technology to benefit societies and economies in a sustainable manner.  These areas will form a basis for new policy work at the OECD in the near future that will begin to address, in a systematic way, those most pressing issues identified at the meeting.

BFM: What can the participants anticipate to achieve from the conference?

RR: Participation at the Global Forum is by invitation only. Our goal was to inivite a diverse range of individuals to participate in the meeting so as to have a wide range of perspectives and expertise. Participants include policy makers and regulators, industry leaders, academics, and social and natural scientists from all parts of the world.
   Participants will have an opportunity to discuss the potential of marine biotechnology with other subject matter experts, with a view to elucidating both the potential of and challenges to, the sustainable development of the field. Almost half of the participants will make formal presentations, and all participants will be invited to contribute to thematic discussions to help identify areas that would benefit from new policy work.
   We expect the meeting will raise awareness among policymakers about the potential of the marine environment that can be realised through marine biotechnology, and those areas where policy may be able to influence positively the contribution of marine biotechnology to economic well-being and environmental sustainability. We believe this will have a positive impact on the work and life of all participants and others working in the field.