From the podium

From the podium


Mr Geoffrey Hawtin (Director-General, International Plant Genetic Resources Institute - IPGRI)

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to address this audience.

For decades, scientists and policy makers have battled poverty and hunger. Yet, despite significant progress, we have returned to Rome knowing that the terrible problems confronting our food insecure world are not yet behind us, despite the fine promises made at the World Food Summit in 1996.

The solution to such seemingly overwhelming untractable problems lies in a simple precept: sustainable development must be based on sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture, for its part, requires among other things open and unimpeded access to the crop diversity that farmers and breeders need to continuously keep us one step or more ahead of the pests, diseases and climatic shocks that continually threaten agricultural production systems.

The future harvest centres, supported by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), hold significant collections of crop diversity, more than half a million samples of the world’s most important crops in gene banks around the world. These collections have been entrusted to the care of the centres under the terms of agreement signed with FAO in 1994. The agreements obliged the centres to conserve the materials in the collections to the highest technical standards of management and to make them available on demand to anyone for use in crop improvement and related activities.

The centres draw on the collections for their work in crop improvement and the results have been nothing sure to stunning. For example, it has been estimated that without the CGIAR contribution to overall variety releases over the past 25 years, prices for grain crops would now be between 27 and 41 percent higher, depending on the crop. The material in the collections is widely used by breeders and farmers outside of the centres as well.

Since the 1980s, the gene banks have distributed over a million samples to users worldwide. The adoption of the International Treaty last November represents an important move forward in our collective struggle for food security. The future harvest centres fully support the Treaty and intend to sign new agreements concerning the in-trust collections with the Treaty’s governing body.

We have the technical knowledge at our disposal to make an enormous breakthrough in the world against hunger. We have the plant diversity collections to serve us as a virtually inexhaustible source of genes for crop improvement. We have the moral and the legal obligation under the International Treaty to ensure that genetic resources are available to improve food and agriculture. What we do not have are the funds to properly exploit the collections and even the world's ability to meet its obligations under the International Treaty is threatened.

Today, in large part due to the lack of financial resources, many existing plant genetic resources collections around the world fall short of international standards for gene bank management. Many national programmes, even those that are able to effectively conserve their genetic resources, often lack the capacity to use the materials they hold to their full potential. The funding situation for the future harvest centre collections is also extremely grim. It is proving more and more difficult to secure the level of funding needed each year to ensure long-term conservation.

The future harvest centres, together with FAO, have thus joined forces in an unprecedented effort to put important genetic resource collections around the world on a secure footing for all time. The goal is to establish a permanent endowment to support the management and upkeep of crop diversity. The endowment would represent a concrete effort to support the implementation of the International Treaty as well as the Global Plan of Action.

The initial funding for the endowment is been established at US$ 260 million. Discussions are currently underway with a range of multilateral and bilateral agencies, corporations, foundations and government south and north. And it is to be hoped that we will be in a position to announce the launch of the endowment officially later this year.

Crop diversity, this critical weapon in the fight against poverty and starvation, is far from secure. Genetic resources activities at the local, national, regional and international levels must continue and multiply if we are to meet the goals of this Food Summit. This will not be possible unless the genetic resource collections are given a secure and unassailable financial underpinning.

With support from partners and friends, we can assure that these collections remain available for all who need them today and tomorrow throughout the world.

Thank you Mr Chairman.

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