An insurance policy for the world’s crops

Q&A with the Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources Kent Nnadozie

Kent Nnadozie, Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. ©FAO


Before 2001, developing a new type of wheat or rice would mean making many individual requests to other countries asking for their seeds and other genetic material. Now, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture overcomes this hurdle, and in doing so helps encourage innovation and crop diversity. At the same time, the treaty also acts as an insurance policy to protect plant genetic resources for future generations. Kent Nnadozie is Secretary of the Treaty. He explains why the treaty is a powerful tool to help achieve Zero Hunger. 

Q: What is the Treaty and what does it do?

A: The main purpose of the International Treaty is the conservation of plant genetic resources for agriculture to ensure that we don’t lose the diversity we have. Secondly, it is to ensure that the crop diversity that's conserved is used. So we don’t conserve for the sake of conservation alone. It’s by using the genetic material that you continue to make it relevant, as you develop characteristics and traits that can produce higher yields or better adapt to droughts or floods or other specific conditions.

No country is self-sufficient when it comes to plant genetic resources, which are the building blocks of our food basket. But it was recognized that some local laws, regulations and practices were impeding the continuous exchange of these seeds and other propagating material. So the Treaty is a global arrangement brokered by FAO to facilitate these exchanges.

Q: Many people would have heard of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic. Is the Treaty linked to that?

A: Yes, the idea for the vault was originally discussed in FAO in the 1980s, and the International Treaty’s negotiation provided an impetus to Norway to establish the vault, which marks its 10th anniversary this year. The Svalbard global seed vault stores a copy of national and international crop collections, as a last resort in case of natural disasters or conflicts. But there are many national and international collections as well, and the Treaty establishes the legal framework and its Governing Body provides policy guidance for those centres and governs how the plant genetic resources they have are exchanged and used.

Left: Four varieties of potato grown locally in Peru. ©FAO/S. Cespoli Right: Lab technicians in Afghanistan sort seeds for testing. ©FAO/D. Dennis

Q:  How do the exchanges of plant genetic resources happen?

A: If a breeder wants to breed a particular variety, they would need many parental lines and in some cases 20 or more over time. Previously, if they needed some material from South America and some from North Africa, and then some from the Pacific, they would have to negotiate individually for each of them and each country had different conditions and terms so it was virtually impossible.

Now, under the Treaty’s multilateral system of exchange, we have standard material transfer agreements that govern such transfers. Once the genetic material is considered to be under the Treaty, the breeder just signs the standard agreement and makes the request for the material, which is then sent to them by courier. The Treaty has facilitated the exchange of over 4.2 million samples so far, which averages to about 1000 exchanges per day.

Let’s remember too that the value of any particular sample is based on the information available about it, so we also have a global information system that was established under the Treaty. The more information you have about a resource, the more valuable it is for breeders.

Q:  How many plants are covered by the treaty?

A: The International Treaty governs all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. But the multilateral system of exchange covers 64 plant types, of which there are currently around 2 million samples notified to the Secretariat. So about 80 percent of the food intake from plants is covered under the Treaty. The major staples - wheat, rice, potato and maize - are all covered. There is also an ongoing negotiation at the moment to increase the scope and the list of crops that are covered under the exchange mechanism.

Q: What impact has the Treaty had so far?

A: One of the most important impacts of the Treaty has been the direct benefit to farmers. Almost a million people in developing countries, mostly small-holder farmers, have benefited. Women and men farmers and scientists, including young scientists, have been trained on how to conserve, manage and use plant genetic diversity, and new technology has been developed and made available to help discover and breed crop traits. Farmers have been able to adapt their crops to the effects of climate change, pests and diseases which has had immediate benefits for their livelihoods, and longer-term benefits for the world’s food security.      

Through these field projects funded by the Treaty’s Benefit-sharing Fund, more than 300 samples have been identified or bred that exhibit high yields, resistance to climate stress, tolerance to diseases or a combination. Current projects are on track to develop at least 90 new varieties of rice, maize, wheat, beans, potato, finger millet and other crops.

Another important impact of the Treaty is the safeguarding of plant genetic resources for future generations. Just two examples are in Syria and Costa Rica. In Syria, the Treaty has provided the framework for the protection of the international gene bank during the conflict, and in Costa Rica we are working with partners to safeguard a regional collection of global importance.

Breeders have also used the Treaty’s exchange mechanism to develop new crop varieties. This includes using new molecular techniques to identify traits that can produce high yields or that are tolerant to pests, heat, cold, drought or floods. It usually takes about eight to ten years from the start of breeding to when a new variety is available, so we are expecting that soon there will be new, improved varieties coming to market that were possible because of the Treaty’s exchange system.

A Session of the Treaty’s Governing Body at FAO in Rome. ©FAO/A. Benedetti

Q: Can you tell us more about those field projects?

A: In India, for example, 25 ‘neglected’ traditional varieties of rice and four of finger millet have been found to have resistance to environmental stresses, pests and disease. These varieties are being cultivated and multiplied in farmers’ fields and four community seed banks have been established, allowing farmers to conserve and exchange seeds.

In Malawi, farmers have planted traditional varieties of cowpea, finger millet, yam and sorghum which has identified a drought-tolerant sorghum that has boosted farmers’ incomes. Farmers were also trained in seed multiplication and storage, and a national gene bank has been established.

We have repeated this in countries across Africa, Asia, the Near East, and Central and South America and we have just opened the call for proposals for a fourth round of projects to be supported through the Benefit-sharing Fund.

Q: So farmers play an important role in crop diversity?

A: Yes, they do. These projects show that farmers are fundamental in conserving and developing plant genetic resources.  The Treaty recognizes this enormous contribution and calls for protecting this traditional knowledge. It also calls for increasing farmers’ participation in national decision-making processes and ensuring that they share in the benefits from the use of plant genetic resources. For example, India has enacted legislation to protect farmers’ rights and other countries have started preliminary discussions. The Governing Body of the Treaty, at its last Session in November last year, established a Technical Expert Group to provide advice and options for the protection and promotion of farmers’ rights at the national level.

Q:  What role does FAO play in the Treaty?

A: The International Treaty was adopted in November 2001 by the FAO Conference, the organization’s governing body, after which there was an effort to get countries to ratify it, and by 2004, it went into force. In fact, the Treaty is the fastest to come into force; just three years after adoption it had over 40 ratifications. Currently, there are 144 countries that are Contracting Parties, including the US and EU members, which is an indication of the broad acceptance and recognition of the critical role the Treaty plays in the global governance of genetic resources.

FAO hosts the Secretariat that administers the Treaty, in addition to making significant financial contributions to the Treaty's management and governance.

Q:  How does the Treaty contribute to FAO’s goal of Zero Hunger?

A: Well, the Treaty contributes to a number of Sustainable Development Goals. It contributes directly to Goal 2 Zero Hunger by promoting sustainable agriculture to end hunger, and to Goal 15 Life on Land by halting the loss of crop biodiversity. In fact, part of the data for the target and indicators under Goal 15.6 is based on material exchanged under the Treaty. Activities and projects supported by the Treaty also contribute to Goal 5  by working to achieve gender equality, Goal 13 by supporting projects that combat climate change, and Goal 1 by working to end poverty.

Q:  What about the future of the Treaty?

A: The overall aim for us is to have full universality, where every single country in the world joins the Treaty, because agro-biodiversity affects the global community. We also want to ensure that the system of multilateral exchange covers all or as many crops as possible so that, in the face of climate change, mono-cropping and other stresses, we can ensure that we conserve diversity for the future, as a fallback if the need arises, like an insurance policy.

Fast Facts

  • The International Treaty was adopted at FAO’s Conference in November 2001. 
  • Since 2006, the International Treaty has had its own Governing Body, under the aegis of FAO. 
  • To date, 144 countries are Contracting Parties to the Treaty, including the United States and European Union members. 
  • 64 plants, accounting for 80% of food intake from plants, are covered by the Treaty’s exchange mechanism.
  • The Benefit-Sharing Fund of the Treaty supports projects in developing countries and has benefited almost 1 million people so far.

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To find out more, visit the Treaty site

2. Zero hunger, 12. Responsible consumption and production