International plant genetic resources treaty enters into force
Legally binding agreement - open access, benefit sharing, farmers' rights
29 June 2004, Rome -- FAO announced that the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, an essential legally binding global instrument encouraging sustainable agriculture, has entered into force today. 55 countries have now ratified it.
"This is the start of a new era," said FAO Director-General, Dr Jacques Diouf. "The Treaty brings governments, farmers and plant breeders together and offers a multilateral framework for accessing genetic resources and sharing their benefits. Humankind needs to safeguard and further develop the precious crop gene pool that is essential for agriculture."
"The agreement recognises that farmers around the world, particularly those in the South, have developed and conserved plant genetic resources over the millennia. It is now up to countries to make the Treaty fully operative," he said.
The gene pool
The world's crop gene pool is essential for feeding a growing population. These genes provide the raw materials plant breeders need to develop new varieties to face potential future challenges such as climate change and unknown pests and plant diseases, and to ensure a richer diet, FAO said.
But 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.
Since the beginning of agriculture, the world's farmers have developed roughly 10 000 plant species for use in food and fodder production.
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 60 percent.
It estimated that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crops have been lost over the last century, and this genetic erosion continues.
A current example for the genetic vulnerability of modern varieties is commercial banana production, which is under severe threat from a fungal disease known as 'black sigatoka', as all five major commercial varieties derive from one original banana variety. The Treaty is a direct response to this kind of threat.
The Multilateral System
"A unique and innovative aspect of the Treaty is its Multilateral System for Access and Benefit Sharing. This ensures the use of plant genetic resources based on the principle of easy access and exchange, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. The Multilateral System covers a list of 35 food crops and 29 forage crops. They represent most of the important food crops on which countries rely," said Esquinas-Alcázar, Secretary of FAO's Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Plant breeders, farmers and public and private research institutions will be able to access these plant genetic resources under standard conditions and to use a wide range of them.
This will ultimately benefit consumers, by providing them with greater choice and quality of food products. It will also prevent monopolization by the most economically powerful actors.
The Multilateral System will greatly reduce transaction costs for the exchange of plant genetic material between countries. In order to use breeding material from different countries to produce a new variety, plant breeders and researchers will no longer need costly separate bilateral agreements with each source country.
The Treaty will also enable developing countries to build their capacity to conserve and use genetic resources. Benefit sharing will include exchange of information, access and transfer of technology and capacity building.
Another key aspect of benefit sharing is that, in certain cases, those who commercialize plants bred with material from the Multilateral System will be required to pay an equitable share of the monetary benefits to a trust fund, which will be used to help developing countries improve the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources. The level, form and manner of this payment will be determined by the Governing Body of the Treaty.
For the first time a binding Treaty acknowledges the collective wealth on which world agriculture is based. It recognises the "enormous contribution that the local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world, particularly those in the centres of origin of crop diversity, have made and will continue to make for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources".
Governments should protect and promote Farmers' Rights by safeguarding relevant traditional knowledge, giving farmers the opportunity to participate in national decision-making about plant genetic resources, and ensuring that they share equitably in the benefits.
The world's most important gene bank collections, around 600 000 samples, held by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), will be put under the realm of the Treaty.
The Treaty's funding strategy foresees the mobilization of financial resources for plant genetic projects and programmes to help farmers, especially in developing countries and countries in transition.
An important element of the Treaty's funding strategy will be the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Trust will establish an endowment that will provide support for gene bank conservation and capacity-building for developing countries. The CGIAR gene banks will also receive support for long term conservation.
The endowment fund has a target of $260 million, of which around $45 million has already been pledged. The Trust has been set up by FAO and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute on behalf of the CGIAR Centres.
Information Officer, FAO
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