Plant Genetics, Treaty: New agricultural biodiversity accord becomes globally enforceable
Ratified by 55 countries, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has entered into force. The groundbreaking treaty contains legally binding provisions for the protection of agricultural genetic diversity, as well as the rights of farmers.
For ten millennia or more, the world’s farmers have developed some 10 000 plant species for use as food or fodder. Over the last century, it is estimated that about three-quarters of this genetic diversity has been lost. Furthermore, only a dozen staple crops provide 80% of dietary energy from plants – with rice, wheat, maize, and potato alone accounting for three-quarters of this number.
The world's crop gene pool – which provides the raw materials for plant breeders and protects plants against genetic vulnerability – is essential for feeding a growing population. The International Treaty on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture aims to arrest this continuing genetic erosion.
“This is the start of a new era,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf. “The Treaty brings governments, farmers and plant breeders together and offers a multilateral framework for accessing genetic resources and sharing their benefits. Humankind needs to safeguard and further develop the precious crop gene pool that is essential for agriculture.”
Guaranteeing diversity through diversity
The treaty will help protect and bolster genetic diversity in agriculture against climate change, monocultural farming, as well as future pests and plant diseases. It is a direct response to such challenges as those facing commercial banana production which is under severe threat from a fungal disease called ‘black sigatoka’. The danger stems from the fact that all five major commercial varieties derive from one original variety.
Diversity is the aim but it is also the name of the game. The treaty employs a multilateral system designed to enhance biodiversity and protect the rights of the various stakeholders around the world. “A unique and innovative aspect of the Treaty is its Multilateral System for Access and Benefit Sharing,” noted Esquinas-Alcázar who heads FAO's Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Under the system, plant breeders, farmers and public and private research institutions will be able to access these plant genetic resources under standard conditions and to use a wide range of them. This will ultimately benefit consumers by providing them with greater choice and quality of food products at more competitive prices. It will also prevent monopolisation by any one player.
The treaty will enable developing countries to build their capacity to conserve and use genetic resources. This accord protects the rights of farmers, especially those in developing countries, by safeguarding traditional knowledge, giving farmers the opportunity to participate in national decision-making. The treaty will also establish a €216 million global crop diversity trust to help conserve gene banks and build capacity in developing countries.
In a related development, Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin officially unveiled, on 24 June 2004, a special report on the future of plant genomics and its applications in Europe. Entitled ‘2025: a vision for plant genomics and biotechnology’, the document explores the promise and risks of this important emerging field in which Europe must claim a leading role.
Source:FAO and EU sources
2025: a vision for plant genomics and biotechnology