Posted February 1998
SPECIAL: BIODIVERSITY FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
Crop Genetic Resources
|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)|
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.
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.
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.
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" . 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 . 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 . With intensive cultivation of fewer rice varieties throughout the developing world, rice diseases and pests are reportedly growing in number, intensity and geographic distribution . 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."
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 .
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 . 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) .
An estimated 60% of the world's agricultural land is still farmed by traditional or subsistence farmers, mostly in marginal areas . 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 . 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 . 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" . 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.
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?
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.
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.