Meeting of Commission on Genetic Resources winds up after nine days of tough negotiations

A marathon nine-day meeting of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) finished at FAO Headquarters in Rome on Friday 23 May. The Commission spent most of its time on negotiations to revise the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, which aims to establish an agreed international system for the exchange of germplasm around the world.

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One hundred and fifty-two countries were represented and delegates focused their attention on the three most controversial articles of the International Undertaking: Article 3, covering the Scope of the Undertaking, Article 11 on Access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and Article 12 on Farmers' Rights.

Negotiating progress was hard-won. Chairman Fernando Gerbasi, of Venezuela, more than once expressed exasperation about sudden switches of position and blocks to progress. On Tuesday 20 May, he convened a smaller group of Friends of the Chairman, to speed things up and subsequently gained an extra half day of negotiating time. On the last day of the meeting, Chairman Gerbasi was able to state that "progress had been made".

The Commission noted that important social and economic matters were at stake, and called for high-level involvement in further negotiations. It was decided that the first priority was to convene an extraordinary session of the Commission to continue the work.

This was the first session of the CGRFA since its mandate had been broadened to include animal genetic resources. It took the Commission very little time to agree on the importance of establishing an Inter-governmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources. It decided to convene this group, to develop the Global Strategy for The Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources for the consideration of the Commission in 1999, as its second priority. The Commission also established an Inter-governmental Technical Working Group on Plant Genetic Resources, and decided, as its third priority, to convene a meeting of the group, with the prime task of assisting the Commission in guiding and monitoring the Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture agreed at the Leipzig Conference in 1996.

The revised International Undertaking will regulate the exchange of what is increasingly recognized as one of the keys to the food security of future generations - plant genetic resources that will enable farmers to meet the challenges of increasing sustainable production and adapting to environmental change. In the negotiations, countries have to balance very different interests. For example, acquisition of germplasm in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s was so extensive that genebanks there now have massive collections.The United States delegation stated that the ratio of germplasm samples supplied by the United States to samples received was about 100:1. At the other end of the spectrum, Africa is home to a vast wealth of plant varieties, and most of this is in farmers' fields. Many countries, including developing countries and the European Union, called for a multilateral system of exchange that would include an equitable sharing of the benefits resulting from utilization, including through technology transfer, training and conservation.

Although little final text was agreed, delegates expressed satisfaction at the clarification of regional positions and the greater awareness of all countries of the issues involved. Farmers' rights was one area of fierce contention throughout the meeting. Elizabeth Matos, the Angolan representative, who also spoke on behalf of the African region, summed up the position of the African nations: "What is in farmers' fields is farmers' property, and is not ours to negotiate away".

Matos commented that the African representation was unrecognizable from the previous negotiating meetings of the Commission. In the five months following the third Extraordinary Session of the CGRFA in December last year, the African nations had held preparatory meetings at national, regional and continental levels. They presented a united and highly organized group at this seventh session.

Given that the vast majority of the world's plant genetic resources are in developing countries, where high-input agricultural systems have not yet taken their toll, it is vital that the farmers of Africa and other developing regions be adequately represented at international level.

2 June 1997

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