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It was the largest intergovernmental conference in history dedicated to this critical issue and the first Global Action Plan for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture ever adopted by governments.
The Conference also adopted the "Leipzig Declaration", which stresses that the "primary objective must be to enhance world food security through conserving and sustainably using plant genetic resources."
"There must be a new and more productive partnership between scientists and farmers to build upon the ongoing efforts of farmers to manage and improve their plant genetic resources, especially in marginal areas," the assembled nations declared.
FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf hailed the Conference as the dawning of a new era: "The international community can now enter a new era of more systematic, rational, balanced and equitable cooperation within the integrated framework of a global action plan which countries have themselves formulated and approved."
The two historic initiatives come at a crucial time in man's farming history. The 20th century has seen a dramatic acceleration in the loss of genetic resources due to such trends as the spread of intensive agriculture and the replacement of great genetic diversity by far fewer high-yielding crop varieties. For example, in India, there will soon only be 30 to 50 rice varieties covering an area where 30 000 once flourished. The varieties being lost forever may contain genes that could be used to develop even more productive varieties or to improve resistance to pests.
An important accomplishment of the two-year preparatory process for the Leipzig Conference was the production of the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources, a ground-breaking survey compiled from data provided by over 150 countries. The report highlights the great progress that has been made in collecting and conserving plant genetic resources (PGR) but sounds a warning on the lack of resources and adequate long-term capacity that threatens many of these collections.
In a number of countries, gene banks are in a state of rapid deterioration because of problems with cold storage facilities, undependable electricity supplies and difficulties in seed drying. Some countries reported that 50 percent of their seed samples are in need of regeneration, which must be done periodically to keep the seeds viable. FAO estimates that between half a million and 1.5 million samples need to be regenerated before they perish together with the invaluable and unique genetic characteristics they contain.
Equally important is the conservation of genetic diversity in situ by encouraging farmers to keep growing traditional varieties and by safeguarding wild plants important for food.
Finally, genetic diversity is ensured simply by utilizing it, i.e. by undertaking research, breeding and seed production so that improved varieties continue to invigorate the world of food and agriculture. Over 1 000 million people live in farm families, which are engaged in the management and improvement of the plant genetic resources on their land. Many of these farmers have limited financial resources and farm on marginal lands.
The Global Plan of Action contains 20 priority activities to address these problems, including:
FAO has now called an extraordinary session of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for December which will follow up on the Conference. It will also continue negotiations for the revision of the International Undertaking on PGR, a non-legally binding instrument adopted at the 1983 FAO Conference, which should include regulation of access to plant germplasm and the realization of Farmers' Rights.
Among the most difficult issues to negotiate at the Leipzig Conference were financial commitments and funding mechanisms. It was agreed that the commitments for new and additional funds that were made under Agenda 21 of UNCED and the Convention of Biological Diversity, should be made available to finance the implementation of the Global Plan of Action.
The Leipzig Conference also asked the Commission to develop a phased programme with appropriate cost estimates for the Plan of Action and a proposal for a periodic review of the Plan.