In terms of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, all nations and regions of the world are highly dependent on genes and species generated and developed in some other place.
To understand why no nation is independent in terms of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, consider a series of wheat lines developed in 1977 by the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo in Mexico. To develop the VEERY lines, approximately 3170 different crosses were made among 51 individual parents originating in 26 countries around the world. The pedigree, when printed out, runs to six metres! At one point VEERY's 62 sister lines were grown annually on some three million hectares, from Chile to China.
That interdependence has bred an international commitment to cooperation in protection of and access to plant genetic resources. There is growing recognition of the importance of building strong national programmes and ensuring collaboration among them, as the best way to safeguard and use the tremendous wealth of biodiversity.
Since 1983, FAO has been developing a Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for food and agriculture. The Global System gives FAO the instruments it needs to face its responsibility in promoting world food security. The aims of the FAO initiative are:
There are 11 core elements to the system (see table 7.3 in the Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources) which includes certain international bodies and agreements, plant germplasm collections, scientific networks and an early warning system. There are now 171 countries participating actively in the development of the major components of the Global System.
Among the core elements agreed to by the FAO Conference, which governs the organization, are the intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. The Commission provides a global forum in which countries -- as donors and users of germplasm, funds and technologies -- can meet, on an equal footing, to discuss and reach consensus on matters related to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
The Undertaking contains provisions for "exploration and collection of genetic resources; conservation in situ and ex situ; international cooperation in conservation, exchange and plant breeding; coordination of gene bank collections and information systems; it also includes Farmers' Rights and mechanisms for related funding. The principles embodied in the Undertaking - including national sovereignty, access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and recognition and reward for farmers and other informal innovators - form the basis for the equitable conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources. The revision of the Undertaking - to harmonize it with the UN Convention on Biodiversity -- is currently under negotiation between national governments through the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
An International Code of Conduct regulates the collection and transfer of plant genetic resources. The objectives are to prevent the erosion of genetic resources, assist access to them and protect the rights of countries and local communities. A further code of conduct covering the application of agro-biotechnologies is being developed.
The World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources, for example, collects and disseminates information on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and related technologies. It will also alert the world to threats to the security of gene banks and dangers posed by genetic erosion. A network of in situ conservation areas will be established to complement ex situ collections which includes the CGIAR collections.
Agenda 21, the document which emerged from the Rio "Earth Summit" in 1992, called for strengthening of the Global System. In this context the Commission requested that FAO lead the preparation of the Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources and The Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (see More Reading). The two, which will be considered at the Leipzig Conference, are key elements in the Global System and will help strengthen that system. The first document is a periodic report covering the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture which identifies gaps, constraints and situations requiring immediate attention. The Global Plan of Action then builds on the findings in the Report.