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Countries agree to establish a multilateral system for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture

Guinea Bissau: the Cola Cordifoglia fruit
FAO/16497/R. Faidutti

A legally binding international agreement regulating access to one of the world's most precious natural resources - plant genetic materials - came one step closer at the latest meeting of FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA-8). The 161-member commission met in Rome, April 1999. The session's number-one task was to press ahead with negotiations towards the legally binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources.

Plant genetic resources are the basis of both modern and traditional agriculture. The Undertaking will regulate access to these resources, while ensuring a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. Negotiating governments have now agreed that a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing should be established for key crops.

Access to germplasm is vital for food security

Farmers and breeders must have access to genetic resources if they are to continue making improvements in plant productivity and sustainable agriculture in the drive towards food security. More effective use of plant genetic resource diversity is essential, including to produce varieties adapted to the extreme and highly variable environments of low-productivity or marginal areas, and to reduce the use of agrochemicals and make more efficient use of water and soil.

Conserving and sustainably using as wide a range of plant genetic resources as possible is also a safety net for unforeseen disasters. More than once in recent history, extensive crop production has been saved from devastation by a pest or disease by genetic material found in traditional farmers' varieties.

An international agreement facilitating access to this germplasm is a vital complement to work toward conserving it. The negotiators also envisage mechanisms for sharing the benefits derived from the use of plant genetic resources, including a financial strategy.

Progress on Farmers' Rights

CGRFA-8 also negotiated a key article in the Undertaking - on Farmers' Rights. The article recognizes the enormous contribution of local and indigenous communities and farmers to the conservation and development of the plant genetic resources that are the basis of food and agriculture production throughout the world. It stipulates that the implementation of Farmers' Rights should take place at national level and through national regulations, and could include: protecting relevant traditional knowledge; the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; and the right to participate in making decisions, at the national level, on matters related to their conservation and sustainable use.

The commission was able to make substantial progress on the International Undertaking thanks to an informal expert meeting held in Montreux, Switzerland, in January 1999. The new working draft of the Undertaking agreed by the Commission was based on a blueprint produced at Montreux.

Implementation of the Global Plan of Action

CGRFA-8 also reviewed progress in the implementation of the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which was adopted in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, and is likely to be a key element in the revised International Undertaking. The Commission considered a status report and noted that there had been significant progress but much still remains to be done. Work is ongoing at local, national and international levels and the Global Plan of Action is being widely used by international governmental and non-governmental organizations as a framework for planning their activities.

Farm animal genetic resources also a priority

For the first time, the CGRFA also discussed action on animal genetic resources for food and agriculture. The Commission gave the go-ahead for a major new initiative in the field of animal genetic resource characterization, sustainable use and development and conservation - a report on the State of the World's Farm Animal Genetic Resources.

25 May 1999

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