International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Will the Genomics Revolution Result in More Nutritious Food on our Tables? Scientists and Policy Makers Meet at United Nations Special Event


Kigali, Rwanda, 28 October 2017 – Today, the FAO International Plant Treaty held a curtain raiser event in advance of its bi-annual global meeting of 144 Member Countries, to talk about how synthetic biology, a package of new technologies that aim to revolutionize crop breeding, can make food security a reality for mankind.

Under the FAO International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 144 countries agree to conserve and share the diversity of seeds generated by farmers around the world over the millennia, particularly in developing countries. Those seeds, securely stored in genebanks all over the world, produce plant food. By sharing them with one another, researchers, breeders and traditional farming communities are able to work for universal food security – a UN mandate conferred to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – an important mandate, particularly in the face of changing climatic conditions.

The FAO International Plant Treaty works not only to sustain crop production, but also to ensure equity. Companies that sell commercial seeds agree to pay a percentage of their sales into a global fund that supports farmers in developing countries, the custodians of crop diversity in the fields.

This benefit-sharing system is based on the exchange of seed samples collected from farmers’ fields and conserved in genebanks. But, physical samples may be less and less needed in the future. Synthetic biology and digital sequence information are revolutionizing the sector.  Prior to the era of digital sequence information, a researcher or a breeder would need to obtain a variety of seed samples, and then understand the genetic information the organisms contain in order to select and use desirable characteristics – for instance, in a crop breeding program. In this process, breeders and researchers have characterized numerous alleles (or mutations) associated with plant domestication and improvement, and have identified the genes and phenotypic differences between crops and their ancestral wild relatives. According to some researchers, these mutations are the “raw material on which selection can operate, making species adaptation and long-term evolution possible”. Today, this “raw material” is equivalent to computer codes that can be analyzed, reprogrammed and theoretically used, either within the plant it was obtained from, or within a different species of plant. It is also possible to download an organism’s sequence information from a database or academic journal and have it synthesized by a DNA synthesis company.

“In the past, physical material was accessed through collections held in gene banks. Fuelled by decreasing costs and improvements in computer software, we have seen a shift towards digital collections that include complete genomes and “parts” registries,” a scientist noted during the Special Event hosted by the FAO International Plant Treaty. For policy makers, the challenge now is how to reflect this new reality in the exchange and benefit-sharing system of the International Plant Treaty. As Kent Nnadozie, the Secretary of the FAO Seed Treaty noted, “Our global community is expected to send two messages at the same time: that modern science can continue flourishing, and that farmers in developing countries will not be left behind. This is in the best interest of food security.”

The discussions will continue in a more formal setting next week, when the Seventh Session of the Governing Body of the International Plant Treaty – the biennial global meeting that gathers hundreds of representatives from member countries, private sector stakeholders, civil society and the UN world – will take place in Kigali, Rwanda. Scientists, breeders and farmers of the globe look to this meeting to find a practical, global solution that reconciles millennia of natural and human-made evolution with ground-breaking computer-based technology.

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