International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

20 Years of saving and sharing the seeds that feed the world: A conversation with International Treaty Secretary Kent Nnadozie


For twenty years, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) has been the custodian of the world’s plant genetic biodiversity. By leading the global conservation and sustainable use of seeds and other regenerative plant genetic material, the Treaty has ensured that crucial varieties of crops were not lost to conflicts or climate change and worked to safeguard the rights and traditional knowledge of farmers.

On the occasion of the Treaty's 20th Anniversary, we spoke with Secretary Kent Nnadozie, who has been involved in the work of the Treaty since its entry-into-force in June 2004. He explains how the Treaty has become an instrument of primary importance to protect biodiversity and meet the nutritional needs of a growing world population.

What made you interested in plant genetic resources and the work of the Treaty in the first place?

It was my innate interest in nature and the concern for the loss of biodiversity and its impact on food security that got me interested in plant genetic resources. Originally, I was an environmental lawyer, and when I saw the impact that biodiversity loss and environmental degradation is having on the communities and the farmers, I became increasingly interested in this field. I was involved during the process of negotiations for the adoption of the Treaty: initially, I started with the Commission on Genetic Resources, and then I became part of the Secretariat of the Treaty once it came into force.

Why is the work of the Treaty important?

Plant genetic resources are fundamental to ensuring food security by providing the genetic material needed to improve crop yields, nutritional quality, and adaptability to various environmental conditions. The Treaty makes it possible for us to have access to the planting material and seeds we need to breed new varieties to adapt to climate change and meet new needs. Because we have limited resources and land, plant genetic resources are key to increasing productivity to feed the growing world population.

What have been the main accomplishments of the Treaty in the past twenty years?

To begin with, we have been able to set up fully functional mechanisms out of the text of the Treaty. We have established a multilateral system for access and benefit-sharing, which is like the global pool of genetic material and seeds that facilitates the breeding of new varieties of crops, and it has enabled over 6.9 million transfers of plant genetic material, supporting global agricultural research. Another achievement is that it is the first international agreement that formally recognized farmers’ rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds so that farmers’ contributions over thousands of years are fully recognized. The Treaty also strengthens the capacity of farmers and local communities, encouraging their participation in national decision-making. The other achievement deals with the funding strategy, which was established under the Treaty and has enabled the mobilization of enormous amounts of funds and resources to further support farmers in developing countries but also to support gene banks, where this material has been conserved. The Treaty, which currently has 150 Contracting Parties plus the European Union, has also been fundamental in facilitating international cooperation because it provides the platform for governments and other stakeholders to come together to negotiate and set policies for the global governance of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Additionally, it was the adoption of the Treaty that gave Norway the impetus to invest in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and, since then, has continued to support the Treaty, including through yearly contributions to the Benefit-sharing Fund, based on the value of total annual seed sales in Norway.

Who are the main beneficiaries of the work of the Treaty?

First, the global community because the Treaty supports food security, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation, ensuring a stable and nutritious food supply for present and future generations, and through the breeding of new varieties, the farmers can continue to produce the crops that feed us all. But in terms of specific beneficiaries, there is a whole range of stakeholders: the main beneficiaries are farmers, particularly smallholder and indigenous farmers who rely on diverse crop varieties for their livelihoods. Additionally, the Benefit-sharing Fund of the Treaty has invested in 108 projects in 78 developing countries and has reached more than 1 million people, including scientists, researchers, breeders and governmental officials.

What role does FAO play in the Treaty?

The Treaty is one of FAO's major achievements in terms of its normative work. It's an instrument adopted under Article 14 of the FAO Constitution, which is an indication of the importance FAO and its Members place on the issue, for them to undertake the negotiation for the adoption of a separate instrument in that area. FAO hosts the Secretariat of the Treaty and provides technical expertise, financial and administrative support, and a platform for international collaboration and dialogue.

How does the Treaty contribute to FAO's goal to achieve zero hunger and the other sustainable development goals?

By making available the broadest range of diversity for crop breeding to increase productivity and nutrition. It directly supports the four betters of the FAO Strategic Framework, especially better nutrition and better environment. The Treaty promotes the conservation and use of a wide variety of crops, fostering dietary diversity and improved nutrition, and also contributes to a better environment by encouraging the sustainable use and conservation of plant genetic resources, helping maintain biodiversity, and enhancing resilience to climate impacts. By supporting farmers' livelihoods and promoting social equity, the Treaty contributes to better life as well.

What has been a key challenge in your work and how did you overcome it?

One of the key challenges within the Treaty is that you are dealing with an international context where there are often different and competing interests, and being able to address those different demands is usually a major challenge. So, I try to facilitate consensus building among the different parties involved, promoting inclusive dialogue, building strong partnerships, and ensuring transparency.  Another challenge has to do with DSI, digital sequence information, which is the data derived from plant genetic resources and is used extensively in agriculture for research and breeding purposes, biotechnology and conservation efforts. When the Treaty was adopted, DSI wasn't mainstream as such, so the definition of what the Treaty covers was focusing mostly on the physical material, but now the information can be accessed online, potentially bypassing the access and benefit-sharing structure that exist already. So, there is a need for the Treaty to adapt to this issue and find policy measures that could facilitate the sharing of benefits that arise from DSI.

What is something that inspires you?

What inspires me is seeing the impact we have on farmers and local communities, not just having the discussions in the international forum, but the actual impact those discussions have on people at the local level. When you see the joy of the farmers because a small investment we made has changed their lives, that is very fulfilling, and it gives us more impetus and motivation to continue doing the work that we do. That's what really inspires me, and of course, in my personal life, my children inspire me – they are essentially the ultimate reason why I do what I do.

How do you envision the future of the Treaty?

My vision for the future of the Treaty is to have it as a universal instrument, which means that all countries in the world would have joined the Treaty, given the fact that it deals with an issue of concern to all of humanity. I also hope that we are able to mobilize enough resources to fulfill all the objectives of the Treaty. I envision the future of the Treaty as a pivotal instrument in global food security, driving innovation in sustainable agriculture through enhanced conservation and equitable use of plant genetic resources, while fostering stronger international cooperation and resilience to climate change. 

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