Agreement reached on protecting plant genetic resources


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The accord seeks to protect crops crucial to food security.

A historic agreement to protect the world's plant genetic resources for food and agriculture was reached early in July at the end of a week-long extraordinary session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. The Commission comprises 160 countries and the European Union. The accord was reached after a week of intense debate, which culminated a seven-year process of negotiations.

The legally binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources aims to protect the world's most important food and forage crops in an effort to safeguard global food security. The Undertaking seeks to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use. The treaty will be submitted for adoption by FAO member states at the biennial FAO Conference meeting in November 2001. It will enter into force after ratification by 40 countries.

"With modernization, fewer and fewer crops form the basis of the world's food security," says José Esquinas-Alcázar, secretary of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. "A study carried out by FAO shows that, over the years, about 7 000 plant species have been cultivated or collected by humans for food. At present, however, only 30 crops provide 90 percent of the world's calorie intake. This agreement will help protect global agricultural biodiversity."

Facilitating access and sharing benefits
The agreement establishes a system that facilitates broad access to a list of crops crucial to food security. This includes both materials in gene banks, farmers' fields and in the wild. The agreement also provides for the exchange of information and technology between countries, particularly to benefit developing countries and countries in transition.

It also ensures equitable sharing of the financial benefits resulting from the use of the plant genetic resources covered by the system. Mandatory payments will be required when commercial benefits are obtained from the use of these resources. Payments will be voluntary, however, when a commercial product derived from these resources is still available for research and plant breeding. These payments will be used for priority activities, particularly in developing countries and countries in transition.

The presence of diverse varieties in a field can help prevent devastation by pests or disease. But over the past century, the traditional heterogeneous varieties that contain most of the world's agricultural biodiversity have been displaced from farmers' fields by modern homogeneous varieties. Most of these traditional varieties have been lost and many of those that remain can now be found only in gene banks, including those of the International Agricultural Research Centres. Away from farmers' fields, these varieties are unable to evolve and adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Spotlight on farmers' rights
The Undertaking highlights the contributions of farmers around the world in conserving and improving plant genetic resources and making them available. While acknowledging that the responsibility for realizing farmers' rights rests with national governments, the treaty asks governments to "take measures to protect and promote Farmers' Rights." Such measures include protecting traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources, promoting farmers' rights to share equitably in the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources and to participate in national-level decision-making on matters related to their conservation and sustainable use.

Discussion continues on some issues
A few issues related to the Undertaking are yet to be resolved and countries will continue to seek consensus on these issues over the coming months and during the FAO Conference in November. One of these issues is the relationship of the International Undertaking to other environmental and trade-related international agreements. Another is the precise wording regarding intellectual property rights on plant genetic materials. Finally, talks will continue on the possible expansion of the list of crops to be covered by the system.

"Work remains to be done, but there is much cause for optimism," says Mr Esquinas-Alcázar. "The International Undertaking is a milestone in international cooperation. It will promote the use of genetic resources for research and plant breeding, the equitable sharing of benefits derived from this use and the conservation of genetic resources for future generations."

16 July 2001

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