Finding common ground on protecting genetic resources

Though their strategies may differ, FAO and non-governmental organizations share the same enthusiasm for agricultural biodiversity

ROME, 24 June 2002 -- People mobilized in the fight against hunger had a full agenda as they shuttled back and forth between the recent World Food Summit: five years later at FAO headquarters and the parallel NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty, organized by farmers groups and other non-governmental organizations. One issue that provoked both strong agreement and angry contention was how to safeguard the world's genetic resources.

Cooperation pays off for international treaty

One accomplishment all participants underlined was the approval last year of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which followed years of hard work and determination. "The support of NGOs was very important to the negotiation of the Treaty," said David Cooper of FAO's Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service.

While expressing enthusiasm for the Treaty, NGOs also voiced reservations. For one, a number of important crops -- including soybean, tomatoes and peanuts -- were excluded from the list of crops covered by the Treaty. NGOs are also concerned about the implementation of farmers' rights to make sure small-scale farmers, and not just large corporations, benefit from genetic diversity.

"It's not what we would have chosen, but it's the best instrument available and we encourage all countries to sign and ratify it," said Luca Colombo, a coordinator at the Italy office of Greenpeace. The Treaty will enter into force after ratification by 40 countries, and these first 40 countries will form a governing body to decide how the Treaty is implemented. To date, 56 countries have signed the Treaty and 7 have ratified it.

Extending the protection to livestock and fish

According to the NGOs, momentum is also building to create a similar treaty for fish and livestock. They cited as an important development the strong participation by fisherfolk and pastoralists to support the protection of those genetic resources.

Threats to genetic diversity

The loudest criticisms at the NGO Forum were against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Cathleen Kneen, an organic farmer from British Columbia, Canada, worried about "contamination with genetically modified crops -- both through the soil and through cross-breeding of plants." NGOs charge that the risk of regular crops being contaminated by GMOs is high -- and that such contamination has already happened in a number of cases. "We're calling for a total ban on GMOs," said Mr Colombo.

Many good plant varieties are produced by traditional breeding, said Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundations for Science, Technology and Ecology of India. "So why spend billions of dollars on genetic engineering?"

Civil society organizations also object to the increasing privatization of the world's seeds. "Diversity has developed over thousands of years thanks to the free exchange of these genetic resources between people and continents," said Patrick Mulvany, a policy adviser for the Intermediate Technology Development Group, a UK-based organization that advocates use of small-scale technologies to reduce poverty in developing countries. "But when the World Trade Organization makes intellectual property rights of plant varieties mandatory, it removes farmers' control over their own seeds."

Conserving seeds the traditional way

When farmer Bowon Adulsi Notimu of Chiangmai Province, Thailand, talked about the importance of her seeds, she beamed. "Seeds are our culture, our life," she said. "They're the heritage of our ancestors." But her enthusiasm faded when she talked about genetically modified seeds. She doesn't want transnational companies to decide which seeds she grows, she said, adding, "They don't understand my way of life."

Besides, she has her own ways of conserving genetic resources. She uses a system of rotation cultivation to plant over 30 varieties of vegetables, rice and herbs. "I'm being pressured to growasingle, permanent crop, but then I wouldn't have these plants and seeds to exchange with other people from my village," she said.

Ensuring a market for traditional varieties

Some traditional varieties risk disappearing because of market forces. An NGO in Brazil identified 112 varieties of black beans among the crops of small-scale farmers, but that was only half the battle to protect them. For farmers to sell them to large supermarkets, the beans needed to conform to a certain size and appearance. "So we came up with the idea, like a blended whiskey, of bringing beans together that had approximately the same size and cooking time and marketed them under the name of Eco-Brazil," recalled Jean Marc von Der Weid of the NGO Advice and Services for Agroecological Development Programmes.

"Food security has been ensured through the diversification of thousands of plant varieties and animal breeds over the years," said Patrick Mulvany. "We want to see a strong, healthy, vibrant use of genetic resources, now and in the future."
A farmer and his son harvest rice in Cambodia.

A farmer and his son harvest rice in Cambodia.

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FAO, 2002