Panel members reported on activities which had taken place in countries and regions covered by them since the last Session (2001). They noted that attention to forest genetic resources from policy-makers, forest managers and development agencies was generally low, and that many public institutions involved in this field were facing significant financial constraints. FAO’s traditional partners, including CATIE, CSIRO and Danida Forest Seed Centre, have shifted focus and streamlined their respective programmes. Not all traditional users of forest genetic diversity, including national tree seed centres, have been in a position to get involved in those programmes that have drawn political attention and financial resources during the past decade, like biological diversity conservation. Involvement of the private sector is limited and focused, and in some cases the privatization of gene collections has raised long-term commitment concerns. In this context, participants emphasized the importance of regional and international networks and other instruments in fostering collaboration between institutions.
Participants noted that germplasm issues have often shifted from supply and delivery to legal considerations over access and patenting, and biosecurity (including risks of invasiveness and genetic pollution). Material transfer agreements are increasingly used, on a case by case basis. At field level, the contribution of good seed to poverty alleviation and sustainable rural development is still overlooked, and participants stressed that it should be given a higher profile. At policy level, laws and regulations governing the application of genetic modification, access and transfer of reproductive materials and intellectual property regimes have been developed. A number of countries have set up legal instruments, or taken temporary measures, to regulate the use and deployment of genetic modification products.
It was confirmed that public perception often associates genetic modification with genetic improvement and there is a risk of seeing biotechnology applications rejected as a whole in some countries. Several fundamental research projects on biotechnology were mentioned by participants, although it seems that only few commercial applications have been found so far. Significant (although globally unknown) public and private funding is provided to biotechnology projects, including in developing countries. Two Brazilian consortia are leading the sequencing of eucalypt trees. The first reported commercial plantations of genetically modified trees (poplars) were established in China in 2002.
The Secretariat pointed out that forest genetic resources were broadly under the influence of three driving sectors, namely forestry, agriculture and the environment. In turn, forests and forestry are increasingly considered from an environmental perspective. However, as noted by participants, forest genetic resources are often recognized or perceived through their traditional applications in tree breeding programmes and exotic plantations. Examples from Central Africa illustrated that natural forests management and biological diversity conservation plans would benefit from basic genetic-related data (on reproductive biology, phenology, matting patterns, seed bearing, release and dissemination, genecological zonation) that are not always available to the practitioner. More generally, many participants mentioned the need for a renewed agenda on forest genetic resources, which would better take into account biodiversity assessments, climate change impacts and desertification control. Panel members stressed that a clearer message on the very nature and potential use of forest tree genetic diversity should be delivered, through this enlarged vision.
The Panel was presented with a summary of FAO’s forest genetic resources programme. During the last biennium, the programme has concentrated on: (i) contributing to long-term partnership programmes with DFSC and IPGRI (on seed germplasm, arid zone species, in situ and ex situ collections, genetic conservation guidelines); (ii) evaluating the impact, and lessons learned from, global initiatives (regional status and action plans); and (iii) exploring the new boundaries of forest tree genetic diversity and emerging issues (biosecurity, GM applications). Most activities reported are intersectoral in nature and are carried out with partners inside and outside FAO. Forest genetic resources are represented in interdepartmental working groups, namely biodiversity, biotechnology and biosecurity.
Resources persons from various FAO units briefed the Panel on other on-going global programmes. Activities carried out by the Agriculture Department include the preparation of the second edition of the State of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; the implementation of the International Treaty; and the preparation of the first report on the State of the world's animal genetic resources. The Fisheries Department maintains moderate activity in genetic resources, mainly acting as a source of information on genetic biotechnologies, species identification and genetic conservation, although no full time professional staff is assigned to this field. Programmes under the Forestry Department that most relate to forest genetic resources include the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005 (which will collect new data on forest composition and tree species); analyses of status and trends of forest plantations and trees outside forests; and outlook studies on wood supply and demand. Outside FAO, the programme of work on forests of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Decision VI/22/1/4, makes specific references to national, regional and global assessments of forest genetic diversity. The Convention therefore appears to be the only legally-binding global environmental agreement with an explicit reference to and work programme on forest genetic resources.