Sustainable Development Goals

Access and Benefit-Sharing: SDG Commitment and Challenge for the Food and Agriculture Sector


Access and benefit-sharing (ABS) are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development but as Dan Leskien, Senior Liaison Officer, Commission on Genetic Resources for FAO, points out the true test is now in implementing policy frameworks and legislation.

Two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – SDG 2 on zero hunger and SDG 15 on life on land – contain targets calling for the promotion of access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed.

The relevant indicator agreed for SDG target 15.6 counts the number of countries that have adopted legislative, administrative and policy frameworks to ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits. However, policy-makers and stakeholders alike know that developing policy frameworks or legislation for access and benefit-sharing (ABS) is one thing – it’s another thing to implement the policies and to follow the legislation in practice. Many countries have adopted ABS policy measures or legislation. However, as the figures of the ABS Clearinghouse suggest 1, many more might still be in the process of developing or adjusting them. More importantly, the figures show that implementation, in particular the actual granting of permits, may be even more of a challenge. As of 1 October 2017, not even 100 ABS permits or their equivalents had been registered with the ABS Clearinghouse by only six countries.

It is fair to say that the food and agriculture sector, in its majority, was among those sectors that did not follow too closely the negotiations of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS 2 and therefore woke up relatively late to the new realities of ABS. True, ABS for most plant genetic resources are addressed by the Plant Treaty 3 adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) in 2001. The Plant Treaty that entered into force more than a decade before the Nagoya Protocol facilitates, in particular, access to genetic materials of the 64 crops in the Multilateral System for the purposes of research, breeding and training for food and agriculture. However, the Treaty does not address ABS for other genetic resources for food and agriculture (GRFA), including livestock, forest and aquatic genetic resources.

It is widely acknowledged that GRFA are in many respects different from ‘wild’ biodiversity. In fact, the Nagoya Protocol itself recognizes “the special nature of agricultural biodiversity, its distinctive features and problems needing distinctive solutions.” The Protocol also requires its Parties to consider “in the development and implementation of its access and benefit-sharing legislation or regulatory requirements […] the importance of genetic resources for food and agriculture and their special role for food security” – a complex challenge the scale of which few might have been fully aware of in 2010 when the Protocol was adopted.

In 2013, FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Commission) agreed to take on this challenge and decided to develop Elements to Facilitate Domestic Implementation of Access and Benefit-Sharing for Different Subsector of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 4 (ABS Elements) 5. The Commission installed an expert group on ABS for GRFA which, upon consultation with the Commission’s intergovernmental technical working groups on animal, forest, and plant genetic resources, provided a first draft. In 2015, the Commission and subsequently the FAO Conference welcomed the result of this process, the ABS Elements, which aim to assist governments considering developing, adapting or implementing ABS measures, to take into account the importance of GRFA, their special role in food security and the distinctive features of the different subsectors of GRFA, while complying, as applicable, with international ABS instruments.

The Commission’s work on ABS will intensify in 2018. The Commission agreed in February of this year to continue work on ABS for GRFA with the aim of raising the awareness of Commission Members, their diverse authorities involved in ABS and other stakeholders. The work should assist Members in reflecting in their ABS measures the importance and special role of GRFA for food security and the distinctive features of the different subsectors, with a view to contributing to the achievement of SDG targets 2.5 and 15.6, and to enable the subsectors to engage in a meaningful way and promote communication in relevant processes at local, national, regional and international levels. Currently, 178 countries and the European Union are Members of the Commission.

The Commission also agreed to produce “non-prescriptive explanatory notes describing, within the context of the ABS Elements, the distinctive features and specific practices of different subsectors of GRFA, to complement the ABS Elements.” The work on the Explanatory Notes started earlier this year with written submissions by Commission members, observers and stakeholders and will continue in early 2018 with an open-ended international workshop on ABS for GRFA, co-organized with the secretariats of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Treaty 6. The workshop will provide outputs for subsequent elaboration into the Explanatory Notes addressing the different subsectors: animal, aquatic, forest, plant, and invertebrate/microorganism GRFA. The workshop will also provide an opportunity for representatives of the Commission’s technical working groups, ABS experts and relevant stakeholders to exchange knowledge, experiences, and views.

During the course of 2018, the Commission’s working groups, an expert group on micro-organism and invertebrate GRFA as well as the Commission’s ABS Expert Team will contribute to the finalization of a first draft of the Explanatory Notes, for consideration by the Commission at its next session.

The original article was published on SDG Knowledge Hub

1 ABS Clearinghouse

2 Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity

3 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

4 Elements to Facilitate Domestic Implementation of Access and Benefit-Sharing for Different Subsector of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

5 See D. Leskien (2015): Making Access and Benefit-sharing Work for Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

6 See



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