Nations meet to discuss utilization and conservation of genetic resources for the farmers of the future

Representatives of more than 125 nations are meeting at FAO Headquarters in Rome from 15 to 23 May for the seventh biennial session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA). Countries have come to continue negotiations begun in 1995 to create a new international agreement to regulate access to the plant genetic resources that are the basis of modern agriculture, while ensuring a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits.

The diversity of species, varieties and breeds is the basis for the development of highly productive crops and livestock. It also allows plants and animals to thrive in the face of harsh climatic conditions, pests or diseases. The Commission provides a forum where countries discuss issues related to conservation and sustainable use of this genetic diversity, as well as the crucial scientific, ethical and legal issues related to the advance of biotechnologies for plant and animal production.

The great interdependency between countries in the field of plant and animal genetic resources means that open international debate is essential. It has been estimated that, for major crops, every country depends more than 90 percent on species and varieties that originated in other countries. Measures to recognize and reward farmers' rights to the plant genetic resources that they use and develop acknowledge this interdependency. Farmers' Rights aim to:

  • ensure that farmers and their communities and countries receive a fair share of the benefits of the plant genetic resources that they develop and maintain;
  • provide incentives and means for the conservation and further development of these resources by farmers, and through cooperation between farmers, breeders and research institutions.

Loss of diversity threatens future food production

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The conservation of plant and animal genetic resources is crucial to humankind's ability to adapt to unforeseeable environmental changes and new pests and diseases. In 1970, a new strain of a plant disease - southern leaf blight - struck the United States. The disease affected only one genetic type of maize, but over 80 percent of the commercial varieties grown in the country at that time shared that genetic vulnerability. Yields fell by as much as 50 percent and losses nationwide were estimated at almost $1 billion. Genetic material resistant to the blight was urgently sought, and found in traditional farmers' material. Every loss from the remaining pool of genetic resources cuts our chances of meeting such challenges in the future.

The plant and animal genetic resources available to farmers and biotechnicians have been radically reduced this century by the advance of high input, intensive farming systems that tend to rely on developing a small number of productive breeds or strains, leading to the extinction of many well-adapted genetic resources. Indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity is also lost with this erosion of farm genetic resources.

José Esquinas-Alcazar, Secretary of the CGRFA, pointed out how rapidly the basis of food production is being whittled away:

"Over thousands of years, men and women farmers have developed untold numbers of local varieties - 'landraces' - that suited local conditions and needs. The genetic basis of agriculture which we have inherited from our ancestors is now seriously threatened: less than 100 cultivated plants and five animal species now provide over 75 percent of human food. Four plant species alone - rice, maize, wheat and potato, and three animal species - cattle, swine and chickens, provide more than half.Yet more than 80,000 biological species in tropical forests are considered edible. In fisheries, only two genera, carp and tilapia, have seen significant domestication for world food production."

Livestock and poultry breeds face extinction

Farmyard animals - genetic resources for the future

This is the first session of the Commission since its mandate was broadened by the FAO Conference in 1995 to encompass genetic resources of animals, forest plants and fish important for food and agriculture. In response to the alarming rate at which livestock and poultry breeds are becoming extinct, the broadening process will focus first on animal genetic resources. In Europe, more than half the breeds kept by farmers at the turn of the century are now extinct. And FAO estimates that 28 percent of the world's livestock breeds are at risk of extinction within the next 20 years. The CGRFA will consider establishing an intergovernmental technical working group to involve governments in shaping policy for animal genetic resources.

Keith Hammond, Senior Officer of the FAO Animal Genetics Resources Group, pointed out that, unlike plant genes, animal genomes are not easily preserved in gene banks. "The central thrust to better management of farm animal genetic resources is active and sustainable utilization", he said.

Hammond also stressed the importance of farm animals to humanity. "Forty percent of the world's people directly depend on livestock for part or all of their daily livelihood," he asserted, "with the major part of this production focussed in medium to low-level input systems".

The conservation and sustainable development of animal genetic resources requires a shift away from the narrow focus on a few high-input breeds, towards a broad focus on the many so-called "adaptive" breeds that survive well in the lower-input, high-stress environments typical of farming systems in the developing world. The emphasis should now be on how to improve the production levels of such adaptive breeds.

Commission to monitor progress on Plan of Action

The Commission will also consider follow-up to the major International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, held in June 1996 in Leipzig, Germany. The Conference adopted the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. By this Plan, 150 governments agreed to implement a coherent set of priority actions to conserve plant genetic resources, and to help farmers and plant breeders throughout the world to use them optimally. The CGRFA now has the responsibility for monitoring and overseeing the implementation of the Global Plan of Action. This session of CGRFA will discuss mobilizing funds for the Global Plan.

Attendance at sessions of the Commission has grown in recent years, along with increased recognition of the critical importance of genetic resources for food security. Increased attention has also focused on the impact of genetic resources on economic relations between farmers and the companies that develop and market high-quality seeds, as well as between the developing nations where most diversity can be found and industrialized nations that have exploited and benefited from this diversity. This seventh session is the first for which the African countries have organized a preparatory meeting, and sees a substantial increase in the number of African countries represented.

Harnessing genetic resources for food and agriculture will be key to meeting the objective of "food for all" set by heads of state at FAO's World Food Summit last year. Increased efforts on conservation and use, greater transparency in research, and increased farmer participation are all essential if the farmers of the future are to meet the challenges of environmental change and to increase agricultural production sustainably.

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