Environment Conventions and agreements

Posted February 1998


Crop Genetic Resources

Introduction Crops Plants Animals Forests Fish Soil


This Special is an extract from "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based Food Security" by Hope Shand, an independent study prepared by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (December 1997). The full publication is available in Portable Document Format (PDF)
Products of plant origin make up an estimated 93% of human foodstuffs. How many plants feed the world? The answer depends on whom we ask, and where we look for evidence. Widely cited statistics, based on global production data, suggest that just a handful of major crop species (especially rice, wheat, maize, barley, sorghum/millet, potato, sweet potato/yam, sugar cane and soybean) supply most of the energy humans derive from plants. There's no doubt about the global economic importance of these major crops, but the tendency to focus on a small number of species masks the importance of plant species diversity to the world food supply. A very different picture would emerge if we were to look into women's cooking pots and home gardens of poor people in the South and if we could survey local markets and give special attention to household use of non-domesticated species. Of some 320,000 vascular plants, about 3,000 species (both "wild" and domesticated) are regularly exploited as food [1], while the total number of plant species cultivated and collected by humans for food exceeds 7,000 [2]. A recent study by Canadian researchers, Christine and Robert Prescott-Allen, used per capita food supply data from 146 countries and found that 103 species contribute 90% of the world's plant food supply [3]. However thousands of species contribute to the food supply of the other 10% which have considerable importance from a nutritional viewpoint and for poor people. The Prescott-Allens point out that their estimates grossly underestimate the true diversity of plant food species which excludes, for example, teff in Ethiopia.

If agricultural development policies and conservation priorities are guided by the mistaken assumption that humanity depends on a handful of commodity crops, then we run the risk of undermining food security for the poor and increasing the spectre of hunger in many areas of the world. For poor people in marginal farming areas of the South, in particular, survival depends not just on rice, maize and wheat, but on minor species - especially those that are adapted to harsh climates and poor soils - that have been neglected or ignored by institutional agricultural research.

Seeds of survival

Some 12,000 years ago, agriculture began when farmers started to gather seeds from wild plants and began sowing them to grow food. Though frequently overlooked, it was largely women cultivators who first domesticated plants and invented grain milling. All major food crops, the staple crops grown and consumed by the vast majority of the world's population, have their origins and centres of diversity in the tropics and sub-tropics of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Over the past 12,000 years, farmers in these areas selected and domesticated all major food crops on which humankind survives today.

Wheat and barley originated in the Near East, for example. Soybeans and rice came from China. Sorghum, yams and coffee come from Africa. The genetic homeland of maize, tomato and cacao is Central America. The only major crop originating in North America is the sunflower.

By and large, crop genetic diversity is still concentrated in regions known as "centres of diversity," located in the developing world. Farmers in these areas who practice traditional agriculture cultivate community-bred varieties (also known as "landraces") selected over many generations. Closely related species that survive in the wild are known as "wild relatives" of crops. Both farmer's crop varieties and their wild relatives serve as the world's richest repositories of crop genetic diversity.

Thousands of different and genetically distinct varieties of our major food crops owe their existence to thousands of years of evolution and to careful selection and improvement by our farmer ancestors. This diversity protects the crop and helps it adapt to different environments and human needs. The potato, for instance, originated in the Andes, but can be found today growing below sea level behind Dutch dikes, or high in the Himalayan mountains. One variety of rice grows in 7 and one-half meters of water, while another survives on just 60 centimeters of annual rainfall.

Agriculture's vanishing heritage

Today, much of this diversity is being lost. Many unique varieties are disappearing and becoming extinct. The FAO estimates that since the beginning of this century, about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost. "Genetic erosion" refers to the loss of genetic diversity between and within populations of the same species. Nearly all of the 158 countries that submitted background reports for FAO's State of the World Report on Plant Genetic Resources identify genetic erosion as a serious problem. In China, for example, nearly 10,000 wheat varieties were cultivated in 1949. By the 1970s, only about 1,000 varieties were in use [4]. In Mexico, genetic erosion of maize is well documented. Only 20% of the maize varieties reported in 1930 are now known in Mexico [5].

The primary reason for the loss of crop genetic diversity is that commercial, uniform varieties are replacing traditional varieties - especially in the South's centres of diversity. When farmers abandon their community-bred varieties to plant new ones, the old varieties become extinct.

The "Green Revolution" refers to the development of high-yielding grains that were introduced by international crop breeding institutions beginning in the 1950s. The spread of new varieties was dramatic. By 1990, Green Revolution varieties covered half of all wheat lands, and more than half of all rice lands in the South - a total of some 115 million hectares. In the process, new and uniform cultivars from both the public and private sectors replaced community-bred varieties on a massive scale. Erosion of crop genetic diversity threatens the existence and stability of our global food supply. The diversity found in the South is vital for the maintenance and improvement of new crop varieties. To maintain pest and disease resistance in our major food crops, for instance, or to develop other needed traits like drought tolerance or improved flavor, plant breeders constantly require fresh infusions of genes from the farms, forests and fields of the South. The high-yielding, elite cultivars of industrial agriculture depend on a steady stream of new, exotic germplasm.

Dangers of genetic uniformity

Industrialized agriculture favours genetic uniformity. Vast areas are typically planted to a single, high-yielding variety or a handful of genetically similar cultivars using capital intensive inputs like irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides to maximize production. A uniform crop is a breeding ground for disaster because it is more vulnerable to epidemics of pests and diseases. A pest or disease that strikes one plant spreads quickly thoughout the crop. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is a dramatic example of the dangers of genetic uniformity. Potatoes originated in the Andes mountains of South America. In the 1500s, when New World potatoes were introduced into Europe, none of the introduced varieties were resistant to a fungus that struck Ireland's potato crop in the 1840s. When the disease struck, the potato crop was wiped-out. Over 1.5 million people died in the famine. The potato blight is not merely an historical footnote in a long list of crop epidemics. The same fungus, in new and more virulent forms, today poses a grave threat to food security.

In 1970, genetic uniformity in the United States maize crop was responsible for destroying almost $1 billion worth of US maize, and reducing yields by as much as 50%. The problem was that over 80% of the commercial maize varieties being grown in the United States at that time carried a gene that made them genetically susceptible to a virulent disease known as southern leaf blight. Further catastrophe in maize was averted due to intensive breeding programmes. The epidemic and its consequences for food security drew worldwide attention to the problem of genetic vulnerability in major food crops.

Are crops more or less vulnerable today than in 1970? In 1993, plant breeder Garrison Wilkes observed that, "Clearly our priorities with regard to genetic vulnerability and food stablility strategies are deficient to non-existent" [6]. In the South, genetic diversity in rice, wheat and maize has steadily eroded due to the dominance of a handful of high-yielding Green Revolution varieties. In Bangladesh, for example, Green Revolution wheat varieties covered about 96% of the wheat area in 1984 with 67% of the wheat land planted to a single variety [7]. In the Philippines, two rice varieties developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) occupied about 90% of the entire rice-growing area during the 1984 dry season [8]. With intensive cultivation of fewer rice varieties throughout the developing world, rice diseases and pests are reportedly growing in number, intensity and geographic distribution [9]. In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Managing Global Genetic Resources made this somber prediction about the state of genetic vulnerability in the South:

"Lack of support for public plant breeding efforts in many developing countries makes it unlikely that they will be able to mobilize new varieties in sufficient time to prevent disaster."

Why is crop genetic diversity so important?

The high-yielding, elite cultivars of industrial agriculture depend on a steady stream of new, exotic germplasm. Plant breeders call this "the varietal relay race" - they are constantly trying to develop and release new varieties to stay one step ahead of thousands of pests and diseases. Without access to exotic germplasm, industrial agriculture would literally grind to a halt. The United States government estimates that for just two major crops, access to exotic germplasm adds a value of US$3,200 million to the nation's US$11,000 million annual soybean production, and about $7,000 million to its $18,000 million annual maize crop [9]. Italian scientists estimate that the benefits of exotic germplasm for a single crop, durum wheat, amount to US$300 million per year in Italy alone. Using exotic maize germplasm from Mexico, the Caribbean and Brazil, US breeders recently developed a commercial maize variety with genetic resistance to armyworm leaf damage - a pest that causes up to US$30 million in damage per annum in the southeastern United States [10]. Rust-resistant genes from an ancient sunflower variety cultivated by the Havasupai Indians of the southwestern United States are now being incorporated into sunflower hybrids in Australia, China, South Africa, India and the United States where new races of rust have threatened the commercial sunflower industry [11].

Not only cultivated species found in the farmers' fields, but also the genes from wild relatives are enormously valuable. Canadian researchers estimate that between 1976 and 1980, wild species contributed $340 million per year in yield and disease resistance to the US farm economy. Genes from a single wild tomato species gathered in the Peruvian Andes contributes $8 million per annum to US tomato processors [12].

Genetic engineers at Germany's Hoechst corporation (now AgrEvo) achieved genetic tolerance of glufosinate (the company's best-selling herbicide) in crops through the introduction of two resistant genes - one of which is derived from a Cameroonian soil sample [13]. AgrEvo is one of the industry's leading developers of transgenic herbicide tolerant plants, and glufosinate is the company's flagship, with sales of over 2500 tonnes per year. (Herbicides accounted for 45% of AgrEvo's US$2,200 million sales in 1994) [14].

Farmer-led food security

Crop genetic diversity is not just a raw material for industrial agriculture; it is the key to food security and sustainable agriculture because it enables farmers to adapt crops suited to their own ecological needs and cultural traditions. Without this diversity, options for long-term sustainability and agricultural self-reliance are lost. The type of seed sown to a large extent determines the farmers's need for fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Communities that lose community-bred varieties and indigenous knowledge about them, risk losing control of their farming systems and becoming dependent on outside sources of seeds and the inputs needed to grow and protect them. Without an agricultural system adapted to a community and its environment, self-reliance in agriculture is impossible.

An estimated 60% of the world's agricultural land is still farmed by traditional or subsistence farmers, mostly in marginal areas [15]. A majority of the world's resource poor farmers are women. As Norwegian plant breeder Trygve Berg points out, most of the South's farmers produce food under conditions which are considered marginal, making their problems and needs far from marginal [16]. Though frequently characterized as "resource poor," many marginal farming areas tend to be extraordinarily rich in plant and animal genetic diversity and traditional knowledge.

The South's poor farmers in marginal areas were largely bypassed or forgotten by the Green Revolution because high-yielding seeds perform best in rainfed and irrigated regions, and their success depends on capital intensive inputs. In spite of success in raising yields and food production in some high potential areas, the Green Revolution's universalistic approach to high-input, high-yielding plant breeding has been largely unsuccessful in less hospitable, site-specific farming environments [17]. For the majority of the world's farmers, therefore, self-reliance in food production depends on adapting technologies and germplasm to a wide range of poor production environments.

Ultimately, farming communities hold the key to conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity, and to food security for millions of the world's poor. They are the innovators best suited to develop new technologies, germplasm, and management to their diverse ecosystems. As plant collector David Wood observes: "There are about 3 billion farming people in the world. They have almost infinite capacity, experience and application to select and maintain crop germplasm" [18]. In the long run, the conservation of plant genetic diversity depends not so much on a small number of institutional plant breeders in the formal sector, but on the vast number of poor farmers who select, improve and use crop diversity, especially in marginal farming environments. But neither institutional breeders nor farmer breeders can succeed alone. Success depends on integrated approaches that combine the best of traditional knowledge and institutional technologies.

The challenge for the world community is to link conservation and development by enabling farm communities to assume a major role in managing and benefitting from the genetic resources on which their livelihoods depend. To succeed in these efforts, farmers must have greater control over their genetic resources, access to technologies, research information, and a wider range of genetic resources and enhanced germplasm. This requires that the formal sector (governments, scientists and institutional plant breeders) build upon the knowledge and experience of farmers, involve farmers in setting the research agenda, enable them to select and assess technologies, and work with them as partners in the maintenance and further development of their own seeds and livestock breeds.

The geopolitics of plant genetic resources

The issue of control, ownership and access to plant genetic diversity has assumed immense importance in the international policy arena over the past two decades. Historically, there has been free access to plant genetic diversity found in the farms, fields and forests of the South. Seeds found in tropical centres of diversity were freely collected by Northern scientists and later introduced as the "raw materials" for plant breeding in the industrialized world. In the process, seeds collected in the South were routinely transferred to Northern-based (or controlled) gene banks for safe-keeping. Much of the collected diversity of tropical and sub-tropical origin thus came to be stored in the North, or in gene banks established by the International Research Centres under the aegis of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Over the past 30 years, plant breeding in the industrialized world has become increasingly commercialized. In the marketplace today, plant breeding, agricultural biotechnology and commercial seed sales are now dominated by transnational seed and agrichemical corporations. Privatization of plant breeding in the industrialized world led to the development of "Plant Breeders' Rights," a system of patent-like protection that gives formal breeders private monopoly rights over the production, marketing and sale of their varieties for a period of up to 25 years. Many governments in the industrialized world adopted Plant Breeders' Rights as a mechanism to promote innovation in plant breeding and to allow seed companies to recoup their investment by collecting royalties on proprietary plant varieties. In recent years, intellectual property systems have been expanded and strengthened to afford the biotechnology industry greater control over seeds and germplasm. But intellectual property systems have evolved with little consideration for the impacts on farmers, food security and plant genetic resources. Intellectual property regimes increasingly deny farmers the right to save and propagate their seed, prohibit researchers from using proprietary germplasm (even for non-commercial purposes), and thus profoundly restrict access to and exchange of germplasm.

Beginning in the early 1980s, representatives from the South, together with NGOs, began to question the inequitable and contradictory nature of free access to plant genetic resources of the South in the face of monopoly rights for new varieties developed by industrial plant breeders. At the United Nations, South diplomats began to ask: Why are patented seeds, based on genes of Third World origin, bringing profits to transnational seed corporations without corresponding compensation for the original donors/innovators of the genetic material? Who is responsible for conserving plant genetic resources? Who controls access to genetic material, and what mechanisms are needed to ensure reciprocal benefits between the "technology rich" countries of the industrialized world and the "gene rich" countries of the South?

FAO's Global System for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources

Since 1983, member nations of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization have taken important (and often painfully difficult and delicate) steps to resolve these contentious questions by establishing a Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) for Food and Agriculture - which includes crops as well as forestry. By the mid-1990s, 171 countries and the European Community were formally part of the Global System, whose aims are: The main institutional components of the Global System are the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the International Undertaking on PGR. The Commission provides an inter-governmental forum where 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 crop germplasm. Its mandate was broadened to include all genetic resources for food and agriculture in 1995.

The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources is a non-binding agreement establishing guidelines for the use and exchange of genetic resources, subject to the sovereign rights of nations over the genetic resources in their territory. Within International the Undertaking there is a balanced recognition of Plant Breeders' Rights and Farmers' Rights. It is now in the process of being revised in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Unfinished business: agricultural biodiversity from Rio to Leipzig and beyond

In December, 1993 - one decade after the founding of FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources - the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force, providing an international legally-binding framework for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity worldwide. But the existence of the CBD did not mean that FAO's Commission and its expertise in agricultural biodiversity suddenly became obsolete or redundant. On the contrary, the CBD and UNCED's Agenda 21 recognize that genetic resources for food and agriculture warrant discrete strategies and action within the wider context of plant genetic resources in general. While the Conference of the Parties to the CBD continues to debate important issues such as access to genetic resources, intellectual property rights, indigenous knowledge, and biosafety, a parallel process has been underway at FAO to deal with the unique situation facing agricultural biodiversity. FAO's work must be carried out in harmony with the CBD.

This work includes revision of the International Undertaking. Specifically, FAO was asked to take action on two critical issues left outside of the Convention: access to ex situ collections, and the question of Farmers' Rights.

In short, FAO's role has been to give greater prominence and visibility to the critical social and economic importance of agricultural biodiversity within the legally binding scope of the Convention. In the early 1990s, FAO spearheaded an international, country-driven process designed to ask critical questions about the state of the world's agricultural diversity, and to identify the actions needed to insure that it is conserved, utilized and further developed. The 4-year preparatory process drew on the active participation of all major actors in the bio-policy and conservation arena - including national governments, scientific institutions, NGOs, farmers' organizations and other community-based conservation experts.

The preparatory process culminated in June, 1996 when high-ranking officials from ministries of agriculture, foreign affairs and the environment of some 150 countries gathered in Leipzig, Germany for FAO's Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It was the most important meeting on agricultural biodiversity ever held. The Leipzig Conference adopted the first-ever Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of PGRFA. The Global Plan represents the input of 158 countries, scientific experts and NGOs, and the synthesis of over 2000 recommendations resulting from regional meetings and country reports. It identifies 20 priority programmes for securing and better utilizing PGR as a basis for global food security which will cost approximately US$131 million to $304 million per annum (1997-2007).

The Leipzig Conference also considered the FAO Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources, based on reports submitted by 158 countries. The State of the World report provides the first comprehensive assessment of the status of plant genetic resources and existing capacity to conserve and utilize them.

The governments which met in Leipzig recognized that the Global Plan of Action cannot be implemented successfully unless Farmers' Rights are realized. At Leipzig, delegates also identified the need for "new and additional" financial support to implement the GPA. The follow-up process now underway requires governments to secure adequate financing to implement the Plan, and realize Farmers' Rights.

An International Undertaking which contains a set of legally binding provisions covering ownership, access to and exchange of plant genetic resources, is now being revised through negotiations between countries. It is this instrument that will establish the rules of the game on access to agricultural biodiversity and Farmers' Rights. Ultimately, the revised International Undertaking may be considered as a protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In Leipzig, the world community reached consensus on a blueprint for sustainable management and use of plant genetic resources. Perhaps most importantly, the Leipzig process generated the political momentum necessary to fuel ongoing debate. Will FAO's Commission on GRFA seize the opportunity to steer the global process forward? The FAO Commission continues to be the world's premiere forum for policy and programme debate on agriculturally-important plant genetic resources. If the Commission's work cannot be maintained and strengthened, and if the Commission does not work aggressively to achieve a protocol, the world will lose an important voice for Farmers' Rights and for the equitable and sustainable conservation and use of plant genetic resources.


1. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 128.
2. FAO. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 7.
3. Prescott-Allen, Robert and Christine Prescott-Allen. "How Many Plants Feed the World?," Conservation Biology, Vol. 4, No.4. (1990), p365-374.
4. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 22.
5. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 22.
6. Wilkes, Garrison. "Germplasm Collections: Their Use, Potential, Social Responsibility, and Genetic Vulnerability", in International Crop Science I, Crop Science Society of America, 1993, p. 449.
7. US National Research Council Board on Agriculture, Managing Global Genetic Resources: Agricultural Crop Issues and Policies, National Academy Press, Washington, 1993, p. 70.
8. Managing Global Genetic Resources, p. 76.
9. Letter from US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to George J. Mitchell, US Senate, dated 16 August 1994, urging rapid ratification of the CBD.
10. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), "New Corn Has Resistance to Insect Pest," Press Release, Washington, January 6, 1993.
11. Genetic Engineering News, September 15, 1993, p. 15.
12. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 468.
13. Personal communication with Michael Flitner, July 26, 1996.
14. Heissler, Markus. "New Style Merging: AgrEvo," Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 23 (June 1995), p. 22.
15. Cooper, David, "Plant Genetic Diversity and Small Farmers: Issues and Options for IFAD", Staff Working Paper 13, International Fund for Agricultural Development, April, 1993, p. 27.
16. Berg, Trygve, "Dynamic Management of Plant Genetic Resources: Potentials of Emerging Grass-Roots Movements," DRAFT, Centre for Intl. Environment and Development Studies, NORAGRIC, Agricultural University of Norway, 1995.
17. Berg, Trygve, DRAFT. See also, FAO World Food Summit Technical Background Document 6, "Lessons from the Green Revolution: Towards a New Revolution", 1996, p. 6
18. Wood, David, quoted in Lawrence Busch, et al., Making Nature Shaping Culture: Plant Biodiversity in Global Context, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1995, p. 42.

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