This report represents a summary of discussions that took place during a meeting held at FAO headquarters between 9th and 11th February 2005. The meeting addressed issues in connection with strengthening national plant breeding and biotechnology capacity. Over twenty representatives of agencies and institutions involved in genetic resource use and plant breeding, including an observer from the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) and about ten representatives from FAO attended the meeting. The participants came from approximately twenty countries.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the economies of numerous developing countries, supporting the livelihoods of large proportions of their populations. Subsistence agriculture is a particular feature of many of these countries, especially those that have suffered from the ravages of war and the vagaries of climate. With few alternatives, rural populations must often secure their sustenance and income from farming. Plant breeding, relying on judicious use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA), has supplied adapted crop varieties to many countries across the globe, with the principal exception of a number African countries. Green Revolution improved varieties have raised production levels, provided food security and generated income for many developing country farmers.
The process of producing improved varieties is slow and requires long-term sustained commitment to plant breeding. In many countries application of biotechnology to agricultural research and production has hailed a new era. There is the promise that application of biotechnology can speed up some aspects of plant breeding, although the techniques complement rather than substitute for conventional plant breeding methods. However, neither the potential of biotechnology nor the proven value of plant breeding in general can be realised in the absence of adequate investment. Unfortunately public sector investment in plant breeding and biotechnology, and the research that supports them, has been in decline over recent times. National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) have been the principal sufferers in this resource-constrained environment as plant breeding programmes have been trimmed and the possibilities for introducing biotechnological tools have receded. Private sector investment in agricultural research and plant breeding, often using the tools of biotechnology, has increased, but linkages with the public sector have been sub-optimal. Furthermore, scarce attention is paid to crops where seed trade is minimal, and which are often important crops of smallholder agriculture in developing countries. It has been suggested that realisation of the Millennium Development Goals might be facilitated by increased investment in plant breeding in both developed and developing nations.
The declining capacity of many national plant breeding programmes has also meant that fewer crops can be researched and bred. There are many vitally important crops that have not received adequate attention from scientists and plant breeders. Given the current financial constraints, it seems unlikely they will receive the resources they merit to enable diversification for food security and poverty alleviation. The International Treaty (IT) on PGRFA, which has been ratified by 66 countries, serves to enhance access to and sustainable use of PGRFA. The Global Crop Diversity Fund was established to contribute to PGRFA conservation efforts. The issue remains, however, that conservation only represents half of the problem. While PGRFA conservation is crucial for providing the raw material for plant breeders to work with, PGRFA use is key to sustaining livelihoods, ensuring food security and contributing to national development.