As leaders gather in Montreal for the 15th United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), lesser-known sibling to the UN’s Climate Change COPs, there is some sobering news from their host county: The federal government’s Wild Species 2020 Report delivered the chilling news that more than 2,000 wild species are at high risk of disappearing from Canada’s wilderness, including more than 100 species unique to Canada.
This makes Canada part of the sixth mass extinction event, as our planet continues to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate.
It’s hoped that COP15 will deliver an overdue global agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 through the establishment of biodiversity targets for participating countries– a Paris Agreement for Nature. That will be an incredible accomplishment for the planet. But as the Wild Species Report makes clear, the hard work is just beginning, and Canada is lagging.
We have, however, a unique opportunity to take the lead as one of the world’s largest land masses, coastlines and sources of the world’s fresh water.
Canada should establish itself as a worldwide leader for biodiversity genomic research, education and social advocacy – we have all the essential elements. Genomics helps us identify the genetic diversity within an environment and provides tools to manage and restore resilient ecosystems. A Canadian biodiversity genomics hub can ensure the genetic diversity of species at home and assist those in other countries.
We are a vast, developed and resource-rich country. We house a deep and growing reservoir of talented researchers doing critical work of global importance, such as the Canada BioGenome Project which is sequencing the reference genomes for 400 Canadian species, the iTrack DNA project which is improving our ability to employ and analyze environmental DNA (eDNA), and the BIOSCAN-CANADA project that is making critical advances in DNA barcoding.
The problem is that no one knows what we are doing because our actions are fragmented.
There are four areas that underly biodiversity genomics in Canada: academic research, government research, data and policy development. Each of these areas is active and robust. What’s missing is a coordinating body that can pull these threads together and become a leading voice in biodiversity genomics policy for conservation.
This biodiversity genomics hub can align provincial and federal climate change and biodiversity protection priorities with whatever commitments arise from the hoped-for COP15 agreement. The hub will support interdisciplinary research to help Canada respond to today’s global environmental challenge. This hub should also coordinate working groups that unite academic researchers and policymakers from across the provinces and ensure our data collection and sharing practices align with international standards.
At its core, this hub should have a steering group that brings together the knowledge of leaders from across Canada that can represent us in the ongoing work that will flow out of COP15.
Canada’s Genome Enterprise, including Genome British Columbia, is equipped to develop a robust coordination hub that facilitates collaborative and integrated research programs, promotes research excellence, introduces innovative technologies and approaches, stimulates partnerships and promotes the sharing of information.
Advances in genomics science have made the application of genomic tools a central part of any successful strategy for biodiversity conservation. Countries around the world are successfully adopting genomics into their wildlife conservation and management strategies.
I’ve been a professorial fellow working on biodiversity genomics for 20 years and I have contributed to many global biodiversity consortia and networks. During this time, I’ve observed that Canada lacks a cohesive presence and strategic vision to translate scientific biodiversity knowledge into policy and private sector participation.
It’s time to change that.
Internationally, efforts are already underway. As part of the Earth Biogenome Project, an ambitious global effort that aims to sequence all species on Earth, the UK has established a bio-genome project, the Darwin Tree of Life, to sequence the genomes of 70,000 species and it is investing heavily in infrastructure to support this project. Europe is funding two huge biodiversity initiatives – the European Reference Genome Atlas and the Biodiversity Genomics Europe project that will produce the largest genomic biological dataset ever assembled which will be used to inform biodiversity conservation management.
The world must emerge from COP15 with a global agreement on biodiversity conservation. Signing an agreement is not enough for Canada to safeguard its biodiversity and protect the 2,000+ species at risk of disappearing from our country’s ecosystems.
We must join the rest of the world and apply genomics to our national strategy for biodiversity conservation. To do that successfully, we must come out of COP15 with a concrete set of actions to create a biodiversity genomics hub that will provide coordinated leadership domestically and globally.