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The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture...and what we need to know about plant genetic resource conservation

by Rudyard Roxas

 

The Philippines is the latest country to be added to the list of contracting parties to the treaty on plant genetic resources of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Following the deposit of the instrument of accession with the FAO Director General, officially entered on 28 September 2006 the Philippines as the 50th country to ratify the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). The treaty be in force on the ninetieth day after the deposit of the said instrument as stipulated under Article 28.2 of the treaty.

But what is the ITPGRFA really all about and why do 127 countries, to date, adhere to it by depositing their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession.

Why is there a need for an agreement on plant genetic resource?

Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, simply put, is “any genetic material of plant origin of actual or potential value for food and agriculture”. They are raw materials used by both farmers and breeders for crop genetic improvement either through farmers’ selection, classical plant breeding or modern biotechnologies. Although these materials exist in abundance, no country is sufficient in itself due to the distinct nature of genetic materials within crops and locality.

Essentially, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture constitute a man-made form of biodiversity developed over thousand of years of farming. Outside the protection of human intervention those cultivated crops would not survive in the wild.

History shows, too, that these resources have been freely exchanged thus promoting intra-specific diversity. This has happened not only among farmers in their communities but also from continent to continent. The development of diversity within a crop is the strength of agriculture genetic resources in the form of resistance and good yields.

These have led to the situation that all countries are now mutually dependent on each other for PGRFA. All nations have come to depend for their food and agriculture on crops that originated elsewhere – on an average 70% to as high as 100%.

Since plant genetic resources are international, meaning they cross country boundaries and continents, their conservation and use requires distinctive solutions and are important internationally for food security. There is a need for a global mechanism that would ensure that plant genetic resources vital for present and future food security be kept accessible to all farmers and in the public domain.
The ITPGRFA answers this distinct problem through a multilateral system of access and benefit sharing which are vital for ensuring continuous supply of plant genetic resources among countries and for future consumption.

Its objectives, as stated under Article 1, include the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.

What is to conserve and who shall benefit from it?

There are 64 major crops and forages identified under the treaty —35 of which are food crops, while 29 are forages like legumes, grass and other forages.
Benefits to or among the contracting parties and their constituents shall be in the form of exchange of information, access to and the transfer of technology, and capacity-building. A funding strategy to mobilize funds shall also be set that may be used for activities, plans, and programs to help small farmers in developing countries. This funding strategy also includes the share of the monetary benefits paid under the multilateral system.

Other benefits include protection of certain sectors, such as:

  1. Farmers and their communities, through Farmers’ Rights;
  2. Consumers, because of a greater variety of foods, and of agriculture products, as well as increased food security;
  3. The scientific community, through access to the plant genetic resources crucial for research and plant breeding;
  4. International Agricultural Research Centers, whose collections the Treaty puts on a safe and long-term legal footing;
  5. Both the public and private sectors, which are assured access to a wide range of genetic diversity for agricultural development; and
  6. The environment, and future generations, because the Treaty will help conserve the genetic diversity necessary to face unpredictable environmental changes, and future human needs.

Timelines

  1. adopted by the FAO through Resolution 3/2001 on 3 November 2001 after 115 member countries voted for the approval of its adoption which ended a seven year-long negotiation
  2. opened for signature by all members of FAO and any states that are not members of FAO but are members of the United Nations, or any of its specialized agencies or of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 3 November 2001 to 4 November 2002
  3. entered into force on 29 June 2004 after the deposit of the 40th instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession
  4. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed the instrument on 29 December 2004
  5. Malacañang submitted to the Senate for consideration a certified true copy of the treaty on 24 January 2005
  6. the Second Regular Session of the 13th Congress conducted committee hearings (2 February 2006)
  7. the Committee on Foreign Relations prepared and submitted Committee Report No. 57 recommending the treaty’s approval without amendment (15 March 2006)
  8. the First Session of the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA was held in Madrid, Spain on 12-16 June 2006 on 28 August 2006, P.S. Resolution 472 entitled “Resolution Concurring in the Accession of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources” was approved on the third and final reading by the Philippine Senate during the Third Regular Session of the 13th Congress and was adopted through Resolution No. 99 signed by Senate President Manny Villar

The treaty is not perfect. Questions have been raised on how far IPR will be allowed particularly on the extent to which it may be freely used by the farmers and the communities to exchange and breed seeds; the commercial use of genetic materials; and the limited number of plants covered by the ITPGRFA. Still, many find the treaty the useful for ensuring the accessibility of plant resources. 

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Links:
1. ftp://ftp.fao.org/ag/cgrfa/res/c3-01e.pdf for full text of the FAO Resolution 3/2001
2. http://www.fao.org/ag/cgrfa/itpgr.htm Committee on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture webpage on   
       ITPGRFA
3. http://www.fao.org/ag/cgrfa/meetings.htm webpage on meetings related to plant genetic resources
4. http://www.fao.org/Legal/TREATIES/033s-e.htm for full list of countries with instruments deposited with the FAO
5. http://www.senate.gov.ph/resolutions/ResNo99.pdf full text of Senate Resolution No. 99
6. http://www.senate.gov.ph/resolutions/SRN-472.pdf for full text of the senate approval of the ITPGRFA
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Seed_Treaty
8. http://web.searca.org/files/EngSiangPaper.pdf