Italy holds expert meeting on plant genetic resources

The Italian government is convening a between-the-acts bid to push ahead with vital work being carried out by FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA). The CGRFA is revising the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU/PGR) - a global agreement that will regulate access to and exchange of germplasm for plant breeding purposes. Plant genetic resources are the raw materials of new crop varieties that are essential to humankind's fight against hunger. 1999 is the deadline set for the revision.

Corn for every occasion: plant genetic resources are the raw materials for new crop varieties

The Italian-funded meeting is scheduled to take place in Florence on 1 to 3 October, in preparation for the proposed Sixth Extraordinary Session of the CGRFA.

The revision of the International Undertaking will bring it into harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which established countries' sovereign rights over genetic resources. During the IU negotations however, it has become increasingly clear that for many vital food and agricultural crops, countries are fully interdependent. In fact, no country is self-sufficient and countries' average interdependence with respect to foreign genes for their food production is over 70 percent.

Crops such as cassava, maize, groundnut and bean, for instance, all originated in Latin America but have become food staples in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Cassava is the main food crop for 200 million Africans in 31 countries, with a farmgate value of over US$7 billion. Millet and sorghum, on the other hand, originated in Africa, wheat and barley in the Near East and rice in Asia.

The idea developed of pooling genetic resources for a key list of crops, which would be covered by a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing. At the Fourth Extraordinary session of the CGRFA in April 1997, a tentative list of 100 crops was drawn up by countries. Two basic criteria were used to select crops:

  • their importance for food security at local or global levels;
  • countries' interdependence with respect to plant genetic resources.

It was recognized that there was much work still to be done on the list, in terms of:

  • what other criteria should be used for selection;
  • how crops should be listed - by genera, species or variety.

At the same meeting, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) was asked to prepare, in cooperation with the Commission Secretariat, a study of the technical aspects of such a a list. (Go to IPGRI's study, also available in pdf, and annex, also available in pdf, which includes the tentative list of crops.)

International experts have now been invited to Florence by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for an informal technical workshop at the Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare, where the tentative list and ideas on its further development will be discussed. Information on the participants and specific topics under debate can be found on the IAO website.

1 October 1998

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