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Making plant genetic resources beneficial and accessible for all

José Esquinas-Alcázar, secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Among the items on the agenda of the FAO Conference, 2-13 November 2001, is the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. The Conference will consider for approval this new international convention, which governments have negotiated through the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It establishes a multilateral system providing access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, as well as to fair and equitable sharing of the benefits obtained from their use. It also includes a provision on farmers' rights. José Esquinas-Alcázar, secretary of the Commission, talks about the Undertaking.

How do you define biodiversity?

Agricultural biodiversity, or more specifically genetic resources for food and agriculture, is the storehouse that provides humanity with food, clothes and medicine. It is essential in the development of sustainable agriculture and food security.

It is estimated that 10 000 species have been used for human food and agriculture. However, only about 150 plant species make up the diets of the majority of the world's population. Of these, just 12 species provide over 70 percent of food, while four -- rice, maize, wheat and potatoes -- make up over 50 per cent of the food supply. Obviously, we are not taking full advantage of the available resources.

What does this International Undertaking mean?

All countries are highly dependent for their food and agriculture on plant genetic resources that come from other nations. Paradoxically, the countries richest in genes are often the poorest in economic terms. Most of the world's plant genetic diversity is found in the tropical and subtropical regions, that is, in developing countries. In spite of their vital importance for human survival, genetic resources are being lost at an alarming rate due to the lack of incentives to continue developing and conserving them.

This is why the new binding international convention is aimed at ensuring both the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of their use. Following several years of negotiations, agreement was reached on the International Undertaking last June by the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which includes 160 member countries and the European Union. However, consensus is still needed on a few important outstanding issues. Countries are expected to finalize the negotiations during the FAO Council (30 October - 1 November). If the FAO Conference (2-13 November) then approves the convention, as we expect, it will enter into force as soon as 40 countries have ratified it. From then on, access to the genetic resources of the most important crops would be multilaterally regulated, and so would the sharing of the benefits, including capacity-building, the transfer of technology and the payment of an equitable share of the commercial benefits derived from the use of genetic resources.

Why is genetic diversity important for food?

In order to show the importance of genetic diversity for food security, we can give a very clear example: the famine that overwhelmed Europe at the end of the 1830s, due to the massive failure of potato crops due to disease. The problem was resolved by finding varieties in Latin America, where the potato had originated, that were resistant to the disease. This was only possible because of the great genetic diversity that farmers in that area had created, developed and maintained over many generations. Today it is more important than ever to maintain existing farmers' traditional varieties, so coming generations can cope with unpredictable environmental changes and human needs. The International Undertaking recognizes the enormous contribution that local and indigenous communities and farmers make and encourages national governments to safeguard and promote farmers' rights. These include the protection of their traditional knowledge, the right to equitably participate in benefit sharing and the right to participate in national decision-making regarding plant genetic resources.

To what extent can biotechnology support the idea behind the World Food Day theme "Fight hunger to reduce poverty"?

I prefer to talk in the plural of "biotechnologies", and there is no doubt that the development and use of new and traditional biotechnologies can greatly contribute to reducing hunger and poverty in the world. Genetic resources and biotechnologies should be considered complementary, as the first provide the raw material for the second. Even the most sophisticated biotechnologies do not create genes, but re-combine those existing in nature to produce new varieties and agricultural products. Modern biotechnologies provide powerful tools with the potential to increase and improve production in various situations, including to the benefit of small farmers and local economies. The main question lies in which biotechnologies and for which purpose. Big business makes big investments and usually wants short-term returns from a limited range of standardized products, which does not necessarily serve the goal of reducing world hunger. For this reason, it is important that investment also be made in the public sector, so that it can maintain its involvement in biotechnological research, in order to ensure that the needs of the poor are well taken care of. FAO is working on a Code of Conduct on Biotechnology aimed at maximizing its potential and minimizing its risks.

30 October 2001

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