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GBIF arose from a 1999 recommendation by the Biodiversity Informatics Subgroup of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Megascience Forum. This report concluded that “An international mechanism is needed to make biodiversity data and information accessible worldwide”, arguing that this mechanism could produce many economic and social benefits and enable sustainable development by providing sound scientific evidence.

That recommendation received the endorsement of science ministers from OECD member states, and, in 2001, GBIF was officially established through Memorandum of Understanding between participating governments.

GBIF stores and distributes documented observations from a multitude of trusted sources of species information. GBIF now distributes about 2.6 billion observations through its data portal.