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Countries meet to boost Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources

Ground-breaking benefit-sharing fund will help conserve and utilize threatened plant species

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Around the world samples of plant genetic material are being carefully collected and saved for use in research and cultivation
8 December 2010, Rome Senior representatives of more than 60 countries including 22 cabinet ministers have met in Rome as part of a new push to galvanize support behind the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and its Benefit-sharing Fund, considered essential to conserve and utilize the world's threatened plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

The meeting was opened by its governmental organizer, Italian Agriculture Minister Giancarlo Galan, who called on Governments to use the Treaty "to overcome the ancient and harmful clash between peasant agriculture and modernity".

He explained that the Treaty facilitates access to genetic material of plant species and pointed out that since the agreement took effect in 2004 there have been more than 800 daily transfers of seeds and other plant material from a pool of more than 1.3 million samples.

The Government of Italy, together with Spain and Norway and Australia, is one of the major donors to the Benefit-sharing Fund (BSF) set up by the Treaty to support poor farmers in developing countries in conserving and adapting to climate change the most important food crops.

Adaptation to climate change

"This high-level forum has made more evident that the Treaty is able to address simultaneously several challenges, including biodiversity loss, global food crises, climate change adaptation and poverty alleviation and agricultural development", said Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary of the International Treaty.

The Fund, operational since 2008/2009, has been accepted as a key international instrument for adaptation to climate change by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change while the Treaty has been recognized by the conference adopting the recent ground-breaking Nagoya Protocol as one of the four pillars of the new international regime on access and benefit-sharing for genetic resources.

So far, the Fund ("Leading the Field") is supporting 11 high-impact projects for small-scale farmers in four regions of the world. For example in Peru, six indigenous communities have responded to climate change by re-introducing old native varieties of potatoes, and adapting them to higher altitude mountain terrains.

In the next three months a further amount of US$ 10 million dollars will be devoted to help ensure sustainable food security by assisting farmers to adapt to climate change.

The Round Table also reiterated the need to work towards the target of raising $116 millions by 2014.
 
Dealing with crop diversity loss

The Treaty is the first fully operational international mechanism for access and benefit-sharing for any component of plant biological diversity and its ratification by 126 countries plus the EU represents the fastest pace of adhesion in the history of treaties and agreements negotiated under the aegis of FAO.

The Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources was conceived to facilitate international cooperation and the fair exchange of genetic resources.

FAO estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. A recent study predicted that as much as 22 percent of the wild relatives of important food crops such as peanut, potato and beans could disappear by 2055 because of a changing climate.

On the positive side, awareness of the problem has been growing rapidly. There are now some 1 750 gene banks worldwide, which together hold more than seven million samples.