ROME, 28 October 2002 -- Genetic resources and intellectual property rights were top of the agenda during a recent meeting at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome where experts also discussed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their impact on business, human health and the environment.

The ninth session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), held in mid-October also tackled issues such as biodiversity and biotechnology.

The Commission was warned that inappropriate granting of intellectual property rights could jeopardise public confidence in an international network of plant collections containing more than half a million samples. Country members cited the example of a US patent on the "Enola bean." Although the "Enola Bean" material did not originate in the international network of plant collections, the Commission nonetheless expressed support for the efforts of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) who have requested that the bean's patent be revoked.

The plant collections, designed to preserve and maintain genetic diversity, are held in-trust by the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARC) of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The Commission threw its weight behind the Global Conservation Trust, an international initiative launched during the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development to maintain the world's plant collections, a task estimated to require finance support equivalent to the annual earnings from an endowment of 260 million dollars or more.

The Commission recognized the challenges and opportunities posed by the rapid pace of development in biotechnology and the need to maximize the positive effects of biotechnology and minimize any potential negative risks. Some members considered that the best way to address the challenges and opportunities was through the revision and updating of the preliminary draft FAO Code of Conduct on Biotechnology.

The Commission decided to undertake an in-depth analysis of animal genetic resources. The result of this study, a report entitled The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources, will be published in the next three years. Some members raised the possibility of creating an international treaty on animal genetic resources similar to the recently approved Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture but the Commission concluded that the issue should be left for consideration in future sessions.

The Commission also discussed a rapid alert and information system for emergencies linked to plant genetic resources, an information network to promote the interchange of technology and resources and the publication of the second report on The State of the World's Plant Resources.

The International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture's Interim Committee also held its first meeting recently in Rome. The meeting, which centred on the development of agreements governing the transfer of genetic material, represented the first step towards the treaty coming into effect.

The treaty's aim is to guarantee the future availability of the diversity of plant genetic resources and promote the fair and equitable sharing of all benefits. The agreement, approved in November 2001, will become legally binding when it has been ratified by at least 40 countries. To date, 65 countries have signed the accord and it has been ratified, accepted or approved by eight.