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Stewardship of biodiversity

Everyone depends in some way on the world's biological resources for survival. Their diversity offers the possibility of increasing food supplies and adapting to changing conditions Every nation, developing or developed, is impoverished by the continuing loss and degradation of biodiversity. To halt the decline in this priceless heritage requires urgent action at local, national and international levels.

It is not just a matter of saving biodiversity, but of devising ways of using it sustainably and equitably. Who is responsible for biodiversity? What must be done to ensure reciprocal benefits between the “technology rich” countries of the industrialized world and the “gene rich” countries of the developing world? All nations are interdependent when it comes to access to biological resources. Historically, the industrialized nations have derived the greatest benefits from exploitation of the planet's biological resources but, given the economic and social disparity between the “gene rich” and “technology rich”, pressure is mounting to ensure that those who benefit more from living resources should contribute more to the costs of ensuring that they are characterized, adequately conserved, sustainably used and accessible to all.

The issue of biodiversity is now firmly in the international policy arena. There is growing recognition of the importance of building strong national programmes, and ensuring collaboration among them, as the best way to safeguard and use the tremendous wealth of biodiversity.

Since 1983, FAO has been developing a Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for food and agriculture. The aims of the FAO initiative are:

Core elements of this Global System agreed to by the FAO Conference are the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources and an International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (see diagram, opposite). To date, 135 countries are formally part of the Global System.

The Commission provides a global 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 plant genetic resources.

The Undertaking contains provisions for: exploration and collection of genetic resources; conservation in situ and ex situ; international cooperation in conservation, exchange and plant breeding; coordination of gene bank collections and information systems; it also includes farmers' rights and related funding. The principles embodied in the Undertaking — including national sovereignty, unrestricted access and recognition and reward for farmers and other informal innovators — form the basis for the equitable conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources.

An International Code of Conduct regulates the collection and transfer of plant genetic resources. The objectives are to prevent the erosion of genetic resources, assist access to them and protect the rights of countries and local communities. A further code of conduct covering the application of biotechnology is being developed.

The World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources, for example, will collect and disseminate information on plant genetic resources and related technologies as well as alert the world to threats to the security of gene banks and dangers posed by genetic erosion. A network of in situ conservation areas will be established, complemented by an international network of ex situ collections under the auspices of FAO.

The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources, a periodic report covering the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources, will identify gaps, constraints and situations requiring immediate attention. A Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources will be prepared drawing upon this information.

Recognizing farmers' rights

The increasing commercialization of plant breeding has led developing nations rich in biodiversity to question free access to their plant genetic resources in the face of proprietary rights for new varieties granted to plant breeders and biotechnologists mainly in the industrialized countries.

The concept of farmers' rights, pioneered by FAO, aims to reconcile this imbalance. The Organization's International Undertaking establishes guidelines for the use and exchange of genetic resources, subject to the sovereign rights of nations over the genetic resources within their territory. Unrestricted access to genetic resources is balanced by recognition of farmers' rights.

The principle is that the considerable past and present contributions of farmers and rural communities, especially in the developing world, to the creation, conservation and availability of genetic diversity should be rewarded. It acknowledges that these farmers and countries should be rewarded no less than those plant breeders who benefit from breeders' rights.

The idea behind the International Fund for Plant Genetic Resources envisaged by Member Nations of FAO is to give practical expression to the concept of farmers' rights. The International Fund is intended to compensate those who have donated germplasm to the world community by providing the technology, information and funding needed to conserve and utilize their plant genetic resources. Provided adequate financial and technical assistance is made available, developing nations should be able to develop a greater capacity to benefit from their genetic resources.

Follow-up to Agenda 21

The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 154 countries at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992, represents another major global initiative. The Convention provides a broad legal framework for conserving and utilizing biodiversity. It will come into force when ratified by 30 countries. Protocols to it covering issues such as technology transfer, funding mechanisms, property rights and access to genetic material are now being considered.

The Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources

* The first report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources and the Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources will be produced in association with the proposed Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources.

At UNCED, governments reached consensus on a global plan of action to promote sustainable development known as Agenda 21. Both Agenda 21 and the Convention stress the importance of developing and strengthening the capacity of countries to benefit fully from their biological resources. Access to new technologies and their managed use and to training, information and financial resources, will enable developing countries to conserve and utilize their biodiversity strengthening, in the process, their capacity to reduce hunger and poverty.

Agenda 21 calls specifically for the strengthening of FAO's Global System and the realization of farmers' rights.

A proposed Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, to be convened by FAO, will follow up the recommendations of Agenda 21. It will discuss the first report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources and the Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources.

Preparation of both documents will involve all parties concerned, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and farmers' groups, at the national level. Armed with reliable information and analysis on worldwide threats to biodiversity, as well as strategies to address them, governments will be in a strong position to mobilize action where it is most needed.

Intergovernmental strategies for conserving biodiversity must support measures to ensure that genetic resources remain accessible to all who need them and are used sustainably, and that benefits from them are shared equitably. Recognition and compensation for farmers and others who have contributed to the development, conservation and knowledge of plant and animal genetic resources should form part of such strategies.

Action to conserve biodiversity

National programmes lie at the centre of efforts to conserve biodiversity. But the conservation of genetic resources is not merely a task for national governments and scientific institutions. Biodiversity will not be secure without the deployment of a variety of conservation strategies each in tune with the nature of the resource and the environment in which it exists. Nor can biodiversity be adequately protected without being used.

Who owns biodiversity?

International cooperation with respect to biodiversity has been complicated by the efforts of some industrialized countries to extend intellectual property rights to genes, plants, animals and other living organisms, which inevitably leads to restrictions on access to genetic resources. With the advent of genetic engineering, for example, the biotechnology industry has promoted the extension of industrial patenting regimes to living organisms—an approach popularly known as “life patenting”.

Proponents of patenting argue that it stimulates innovation by rewarding patent holders and enables companies to recoup their research investment. In the 1980s, precedents have been established for extending the concept through “life patenting”. As a result, genes, plants, animals and microorganisms—whether discovered in nature or manipulated by genetic engineers—could be rendered the intellectual property of private interests.

The patenting of useful genes found in nature is particularly controversial. For farmers and consumers in the developing world it could mean paying royalties on products that are based on their own biological resources and knowledge. Under patent law, a farmer breeding a patented animal and selling its offspring without payment of royalties would be contravening the law. Similarly, it would be illegal for farmers to save seed from a patented variety for replanting.

Proposals are now being considered at various international fora to:

In promoting mechanisms for rewarding innovators of new biotechnologies, little or no consideration has been given to the impact on the future conservation and exchange of biological resources. The FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources has warned: “… if the patent system is applied universally to living matter, including plants and animals, and their genetic resources, then the principle of unrestricted access will be severely eroded”.

The danger is that claiming intellectual property rights, without reciprocal benefits and compensation for developing nations, could set up formidable barriers preventing access to genetic resources. In the wake of new intellectual property proposals, developing nations are questioning the concepts of free access and heritage of humankind. They may react by restricting access to germplasm on their territories. Clearly, present proposals could have grave implications for future economic development and world food security.

Life patenting: the United States example

1980 The US Supreme Court rules in the case of Diamond versus Chakrabarty that genetically engineered microorganisms are patentable.

1985 The US Patent and Trademark Office rules that plants (previously protected under breeders' rights) are patentable subject matter under industrial patent laws.

1987 The US Patent and Trademark Office rules that genetically engineered animals are patentable, granting a patent to Harvard University for a transgenic mouse. As of March 1993, 180 transgenic-animal patent applications were pending.

1992 The US Government's National Institute of Health (NIH) applies for patents on thousands of human gene sequences. (The patent applications, denied in 1993, were particularly controversial because the NIH had no idea how the human gene sequences could be used, or what role they played in the human body. NIH claims that it will re-apply.)

1993 Agracetus Company, an American biotechnology company, claims broad patent protection over all genetically engineered cotton varieties, regardless of how they were produced. The broad-based claim of patent protection over an entire species is unprecedented and likely to be challenged.

Managed use is generally the most effective way of conserving breeds and varieties. National gene banks and other conservation efforts must be regarded as a backup to the complementary system of living, evolving collections utilized by people. Only in use can agricultural genetic resources continue to evolve and thus retain their value.

A grassroots conservation movement has emerged worldwide in response to the loss of biodiversity. Individuals and NGOs are conserving, nurturing and exchanging plant and animal genetic resources at the community level.

In the United States, a network of nearly 1 000 dedicated farmers and gardeners, known as the Seed Savers Exchange, locates and conserves thousands of endangered vegetable varieties. These amateur seed savers are rescuing fruit and vegetable varieties that are no longer available commercially, many of which are not found in government seed banks.

KENGO, a coalition of farmers' organizations, women's groups and other community groups throughout Kenya, has been promoting the role of traditional trees for fuel, fodder, timber and many other purposes. The work of KENGO demonstrates that farm communities can take responsibility for local conservation programmes, especially if the objectives are in harmony with the short-term needs of the farmer.

NGOs devoted to conserving livestock breeds, such as the United Kingdom's Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in the United States, conduct research and educational programmes to promote wider use of rare breeds. They also coordinate, advise and help individual farmers who conserve and use rare breeds of livestock.

Ultimately, conservation of biodiversity is everybody's business. It is up to all of us — governments, scientists, NGOs, industry and individuals — to safeguard biodiversity. Partnerships between these sectors must be strengthened to ensure the broadest possible participation in complementary conservation activities.

We stand at a crossroads. Our generation has inherited a rich biological legacy, but what will we pass on to the next generation: a secure biotic heritage or a genetically impoverished world? Global, national and local action to conserve and utilize biodiversity will influence the future evolution of both human civilization and life on earth. Biodiversity for human development, based on equitable and sustainable use, is the path to sustainable livelihoods today, while ensuring that future generations have the resources they will need to survive and prosper.

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