ROME, 6 June 2002 -- The 15 member countries of the European Union, as well as the European Community, today signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, according to a statement issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

On 3 November 2001, the FAO Conference approved the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. The legally binding treaty for the first time covers conservation and sustainable use of the world's agricultural plant genetic material, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of its benefits, including the commercial benefits. The treaty is in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity.

With these signatures, the number of countries that have signed the treaty increased to 26, plus the European Community. Eritrea, Egypt, Jordan and Guinea have already ratified the treaty. The treaty enters into force after ratification by 40 countries.

"The signature by the 15 EU member states and the European Community and their announcement that they intend ratifying it as soon as possible is a major breakthrough," said Louise Fresco, FAO Assistant Director-General for Agriculture. "It comes only a few months after the adoption of the agreement and shows the importance countries are giving to genetic resources for food and agriculture on which global food security depends. I hope that this will send a strong signal to other countries to follow suit."

FAO expects more countries will sign the Treaty during the upcoming World Food Summit: five years later (Rome, 10-13 June 2002).

Genetic resources for food and agriculture are 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 world's energy intake.

"In spite of their vital importance for human survival, genetic resources are being lost at an alarming rate. The treaty will provide incentives to continue conserving and developing them," said José Esquinas-Alcazar, Secretary of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The treaty covers all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It also established a multi-lateral system for access and benefit sharing for 64 major crops and forages important for global food security. Together these provide around 80 percent of the world's energy intake.

The countries richest in genes are often the poorest in economic terms, FAO said. Most of the world's plant genetic diversity is found in the developing countries.