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Plant Genetic Resources

Plant genetic resources are playing an ever-growing role on world food security and economic development. They underpin the ability of agriculture to cope with changes, whether environmental or socio-economic. They are an integral component of agricultural biodiversity as these resources are crucial for sustainable agricultural production intensification and ensuring the livelihood of a large portion of women and men who depend on agriculture. 

Plant genetic diversity also has the potential to provide traits that can help meet future challenges, such as the need to adapt crops to changing climatic conditions or outbreaks of disease. However, plant genetic diversity is threatened by “genetic erosion”, a term coined by scientists to describe the loss of individual genes and of combinations of genes, such as those found in locally adapted landraces. The main cause of genetic erosion is the replacement of local varieties by modern varieties. In addition, the introduction of commercial varieties into traditional farming systems often leads to a reduction in the number of varieties grown. Other causes of genetic erosion include the emergence of new pests, weeds and diseases, environmental degradation, urbanization and land clearing through deforestation and bush fires.

Since its establishment in 1983, the Commission has helped coordinate and guide a series of critical international initiatives to raise awareness of the erosion of plant genetic resources. It has spearheaded concerted policy-level efforts to promote conservation.

The Commission developed the Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to help minimizing the loss of genetic diversity in seed, field and in vitro collections held ex situ. Recognizing the importance of strengthening complementarity of ex situ and in situ conservation strategies, the Commission recently endorsed the Voluntary guidelines for national level conservation of crop wild relatives and wild food plants. Similar guidelines for national level conservation and use of farmers’ varieties/landraces are under development.

The Commission keeps a watchful eye on threats to plant genetic diversity and on trends in its conservation and use by guiding periodic assessments of The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources. As part of its Multi-Year Programme of Work, the Commission also oversees the implementation, and facilitates the updating, of the rolling Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 1996, FAO launched the first report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture on the occasion of the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources which welcomed the report as “the first comprehensive worldwide assessment of the state of plant genetic resource conservation and use”. The Conference also adopted the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2009, on the occasion of the Commission’s Twelfth Regular Session, FAO launched the The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Commission endorsed the report as the authoritative assessment of the sector. The second report identifies the most significant changes that occurred between 1996, when the first report was published, and 2009. It analyses the status and trends of plant genetic resources and their use, in situ management and ex situ conservation. It also addresses the state of relevant programmes, training needs and legislation at national level. The second report provided the basis for the development of the Second Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which the FAO Council adopted in 2011.

WIEWS, the World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, is the Commission’s information system supporting the preparation of global assessments on the status of conservation and use of PGRFA. Through an agreed monitoring framework based on indicators and composite indices, WIEWS assists countries to measure progress towards the implementation of all priority activities of the rolling Global Plan of Action, as well as Target 2.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Building on the Global Plan of Action, the Commission’s work proceeded on two other ground-breaking initiatives:

    The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, negotiated by the Commission, went into effect in 2004 and has been ratified by more than 130 countries. Through the Treaty, countries agree to establish a Multilateral System to facilitate access to the genetic resources of 64 of our most important crops and forages, and to share the benefits arising from their use in a fair and equitable way. The Treaty provides for benefit-sharing through exchange of information, access to and transfer of technology, and capacity-building. It also foresees a funding strategy for mobilizing funds for programmes to help, above all, small farmers in developing countries. The funding strategy also covers the sharing of the monetary benefits paid under the Multilateral System. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, launched in 2004, spearheads international efforts to endow the world’s most important collections of crop diversity. The Trust is an essential element of the Treaty’s funding strategy, specifically supporting the ex-situ conservation of crop genetic diversity, particularly the diversity held by the CGIAR genebanks.

The Commission, the Treaty and the Trust contribute in different but mutually supportive ways to ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources.