Genetic resources in agriculture: the key to food security
First meeting of the Governing Body of the International Treaty in Madrid
8 June 2006, Rome – The signature of the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture marks a major step towards guaranteeing food security in the world. It is also a historic landmark in North-South cooperation, according to FAO on the eve of the first meeting of its signatory states.
The Treaty is a legally binding instrument negotiated by FAO’s member states, and came into force in June 2004 as the culmination of a long process that began in the 1970s. Its purpose is to safeguard the genetic diversity of crops, a heritage of crucial importance to future generations, three quarters of which, however, are estimated to have been lost during the last century.
Throughout history, human beings have used some 10 000 plant species for food; today, our diet is based on just over 100 species, due to the introduction of a small number of modern and enormously uniform commercial varieties.
The Governing Body of the Treaty will hold its first meeting in Madrid on 12-16 June, attended by all the countries that have ratified the Treaty, now numbering more than one hundred with the recent accession of Iran and Brasil. It will be a key event for the future of the Treaty because it will lay down the procedures for implementation and other key aspects, such as a financial strategy, access to plant genetic resources and the sharing of benefits deriving from their use.
Parallel to this meeting, which is being organized with Spain's support, a Ministerial Meeting will be convened on 13 June. This should be well attended and is expected to send out a strong political message: adequate financial and human resources must be guaranteed to make the Treaty operational, particularly in the developing countries. One of the salient aspects of this agreement is its universality and the impetus it gives to closer North-South cooperation.
The importance of the Treaty
“This international agreement not only guarantees the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, but also the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of their use, including any monetary benefits of commercialization. For the first time, farmers’ rights are formally acknowledged, on the understanding that it is the traditional small-holders in every part in the world who have made the greatest contribution to developing agricultural biological diversity over the millennia, and are still its main custodians,” said José Esquinas Alcázar, who, since 1983, has been the Secretary of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the intergovernmental forum where the Treaty was negotiated.
Genetic resources are the raw materials farmers and scientists need to develop new varieties so that humanity can address such potential challenges as plant pests and climate change, and so that people can improve their diets. FAO considers this Treaty an essential means of attaining the Millennium Development Goals, especially Goal 1, to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, and Goal 7, to ensure environmental sustainability.
The Treaty creates a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing, to facilitate access by the Contracting Parties to plant genetic resources while ensuring the multilateral sharing of benefits. This system applies to a list of 64 plant species, selected on the basis of food security and interdependence criteria, including wheat, rice, potatoes and maize, which are staple components in the diet of a large proportion of the world’s population. Benefit-sharing is intended to equip the developing countries in particular with the means and resources they need to conserve and use their genetic resources, whether in situ or ex situ (outside their natural environment).
“No country is self-sufficient in genetic resources in agriculture. FAO has calculated that countries are about 70% interdependent. Every country depends on the genetic diversity of plants in other countries and regions to guarantee food security for their own people,” says Esquinas.
The greatest agricultural biological diversity is found in tropical and subtropical zones, i.e., in the developing world. Many countries considered as poor are therefore “rich” in biodiversity, but all of them depend on the availability and constant exchange of plant genetic resources, especially the most developed countries. International cooperation in this matter is therefore not only of benefit to a few countries, but to the whole of humanity.
“Agricultural biodiversity is a vital legacy bequeathed to us by previous generations. Once genetic material is lost, it is irretrievable. We have a moral obligation to pass it down, intact, to our children: the Treaty transforms the moral obligation to conserve it for future generations into a legal obligation,” Esquinas concludes.
Information Officer, FAO
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Information Officer, FAO
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