Why an International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources?
Humanity is facing the interconnected challenges of food security, climate change and the loss of agricultural biodiversity. With the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (hereafter “International Plant Treaty”) the international community aims to create a tool to tackle this triple challenge. The Treaty sees plant breeding as essential to meeting the food security challenge in the context of climate change. Crop varieties that achieve significantly higher yields and that are able to withstand new diseases and extreme weather events are seen as critical to our future. As such, the Treaty prioritizes conserving the existing crop diversity, and focuses on giving agricultural researchers, breeders and farmers access to it.
What is the International Plant Treaty?
The International Treaty, that fall under the purview of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), provides signatory countries (contracting parties) with the legal framework to take action for the conservation and the sustainable use of their crop diversity. Moreover, it has established a mechanism that facilitates international exchanges of crop genetic material- Standard Material Transfer Agreement (referred to as SMTA), and a fund that supports projects for the conservation and the sustainable use of crop diversity worldwide (referred to as the Global Crop Diversity Fund). Implementation of the International Plant Treaty at the national level is fundamental for the Treaty to live up to its full potential. The need for capacity building and training to that end has been voiced by a large number of signatory countries and various stakeholder groups.
Objectives of the Treaty
The overall aims of the Treaty are quite simple:
- Recognize the enormous contribution of farmers to the diversity of crops that feed the world;
- Establish a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with no-cost, facilitated access to plant genetic materials;
- Ensure that users share any benefits they derive from genetic materials used in plant breeding or biotechnology with the regions where they originated.
Main Mechanism: Multi-Lateral System
In order to meet the specifics agricultural needs it hopes to meet, the International Plant Treaty developed a multi-lateral system (referred to as MLS) that puts 64 of our most important crops – crops that together account for 80% of the food we derive from plants – into an accessible global pool of genetic resources freely accessible to potential users in the Treaty’s ratifying countries for research, breeding, training for food and agriculture. The MLS focuses on three main approaches:
1) Access and Benefit Sharing
The Treaty facilitates access to genetic materials of the 64 crops (listed in Annex 1 of the Treaty) as long as users agree to only use the material for these uses and not claim intellectual property rights over those resources in the form they received them, and ensures that access to genetic resources already protected by international property rights is consistent with international and national laws. It is also supposed to allow access with a fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity. The benefit-sharing mechanism focus on:
- Exchange of Information such as online inventories (Global Information System which is a database of information on seeds and plant genetic resources and DivSeek which is a database of genomic information about plant genetic resources.
- Access to and transfer of technology
- Capacity building in developing countries on plant genetic resources
- Sharing of commercial benefits– so that recipients of genetic resources covered by the Treaty pay and equitable share of commercial benefits whenever a product resulting from those resources is commercialized with restrictions for further research and breeding.
2) Farmers’ Rights
The Treaty recognizes the enormous contribution farmers have made to the ongoing development of the world’s wealth of plant genetic resources. It includes an article (Article 9) that calls for protecting the traditional knowledge of these farmers, increasing their participation in national decision-making processes and ensuring that they share in the benefits from the use of these resources.
3) Sustainable Use
Recognizing that most of the world’s food comes from four main crops – rice, wheat, maize and potatoes- but that local crops are a major food source for hundreds of millions of people, the Treaty aims to maximize the use and breeding of all crops and promotes the development and maintenance of diverse farming systems.
As much as the Treaty is appreciated by farmers and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), there are growing concerns that need to be addressed during the negotiation meetings. Here is a quick overview of the concerns that farmers and CSOs will bring up during statements that we will post on this page during the Treaty meetings in Rome at the FAO headquarters (Oct. 5-9, 2015):
- Farmers’ rights: How are farmers’ rights defined, what is the scope of farmers’ rights, who defines them, are farmers consulted and represented?
- Access and benefits sharing: How seed laws (UPOV) and Intellectual Property Rights legislation (WIPO) intersect with- and can undermine- the Treaty, how patents are increasingly limiting access to farmers’ seeds, the dematerialization of seeds and plant genetic resources through Global Information Systems such as DivSeek, and lack of representation of farmers in discussions about benefits-sharing. There are also strong concerns about the funding and contributions of countries and industry into Benefits Sharing in terms of who contributes to Benefit Sharing Fund, why is it voluntary, whether we can price can we put on plant genetic resources, etc.
- Sustainable use: How is the term ‘sustainable’ interpreted given that it seems to actually be defined in a holistic manner but increasingly interpreted otherwise, and how are small holder farmers, traditional knowledge & local crops considered.
To learn more about what farmers and CSO’s concerns, read:
- The official press release by La Via Campesina expressing concerns about the Treaty (in English, French, and Spanish)
- The official statements read by farmers and CSOs during GB6 International Treaty meetings (Oct. 5-9, 2015- Rome)
- Check out some of the tweets that happened during the Treaty
- Read a quick report from the Treaty by Patrick Mulvany which includes a link to the audio recording of Liz Matos- a key negotiator in the Treaty’s deliberations on behalf of her country and the African region since the inception of negotiations in FAO on the Treaty- October 9, 2015 speech on her concerns about the Treaty.
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