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First fruits of plant gene pact

Delegates from 120 nations in Tunis to share benefits of treaty on food plant genes

Photo: ©FAO
Corn varieties: it takes all sorts to feed the world.
1 June 2009, Rome/Tunis - For the first time, farmers in poor countries are to be rewarded under a binding international treaty for conserving and propagating crop varieties that could prove to be the saviour of global food security over the coming decades.  

A new benefit-sharing scheme, part of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, is to come on stream thanks to the generous donations of several governments that will support five such farmers’ projects.

They will be announced at a meeting of the Treaty’s Governing Body is Tunis this week from more than 300 applications submitted by farmers, farmer’s organisations and research centres mainly from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Food gene pool

It is the first time that financial benefits are being transferred under the Treaty which was agreed in 2004. The Treaty established a global pool comprised of 64 food crops that make up more than one million samples of known plant genetic resources.

The Treaty stipulates that whenever a commercial product results from the use of this gene pool and that product is patented, 1.1 percent of the sales of the product must be paid to the Treaty’s benefit-sharing fund.

The first batch of projects are to receive around $250 000. Norway, Italy, Spain and Switzerland have contributed the funds as seed money for the benefit-sharing scheme.  

Ten year wait

Plant breeding is a slow process and it can take ten years or more for a patented product to emerge from the time the genetic transfer took place which is why the aforementioned governments have backed the scheme. Norway introduced a small tax on the sale of seeds on its domestic market to fund its donation.  

The projects selected will have to fulfil a number of criteria that support poor farmers who conserve different seed varieties and reduce hunger in the world.  

“We are grateful to the governments who have made voluntary contributions to make this possible,” said Dr Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary of the Treaty’s Governing Body.

“If farmers and other agricultural stakeholders don’t get any support in conserving and developing the different varieties, this crop diversity that they look after may be lost forever.

Diversity is key

No country is self-sufficient in plant genetic resources; all depend on genetic diversity in crops from other countries and regions. International cooperation and open exchange of genetic resources are therefore essential for food security.

Climate change has made this challenge even more pressing as there is a need to preserve all the crops developed over millennia that can resist cold winters or hot summers. 

Yet, agricultural biodiversity, which is the basis for food production, is in sharp decline due the effects of modernization, changes in diets and increasing population density.

About three-quarters of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century, and this genetic erosion continues.

It is estimated that there were once 10,000 types of food crops. Today, only 150 crops feed most of the world's population, and just 12 crops provide 80 percent of dietary energy from plants, with rice, wheat, maize, and potato alone providing almost 60 percent.

Hidden crops

Many new and unexploited varieties are found in some of the hardest to reach places in poor countries, where they have been traditionally grown by local farmers but never commercialized.

The real concern is that many crops that have developed resistance to hot summers and cold winters, or long periods of drought might be lost which is why the Treaty has made on-farm conservation one of its priorities. 

$116 million appeal

Delegates to the meeting will seek agreement on ways to further speed up the benefit-sharing aspects of the Treaty. These might include an appeal from the Governing Body to governments, private donors and foundations for $116 million to strengthen the treaty’s work in helping developing countries grow better crops. 

 “While disagreements over access to crop genetic resources can involve highly technical issues and complex legal matters, the challenges are quite clear,” said Dr Bhatti.

“Crop breeders need wide access to genetic diversity in order to confront climatic change, fight plant pests or disease, and feed the world’s rapidly growing populations.”