by GRAIN | 25 Jun 1996

June 1996



In the March Seedling we outlined how 1996 could become the year of agricultural biodiversity. Since then, governments and NGOs have been gearing up for the International Technical Conference in Leipzig, where a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Global Plan of Action (GPA) to conserve and use genetic resources will be discussed. This editorial makes a brief reflection on the proposed GPA, which is clearly related to the three main articles in this issue. They feature a synthesis of a brand new FAO report on the state of ex situ germplasm collections, the `renewal process' of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the pressures of the Union for Plant Breeders Rights (UPOV) on Southern governments to adopt plant breeders rights. All of these articles have something in common: they deal with the bigger issue of industrialisation of agriculture and commodification of genetic resources.

Two years ago, the CGIAR was in a crisis. It claims now to have countered the problems and that it is ready to launch another Green Revolution. Yet genetic erosion, the displacement and loss of the great diversity and varieties farmers created over centuries, is one of the many impacts of the first Green Revolution and one of the most serious negative effects of industrialised agriculture. The loss of the genetic richness from farmers fields resulted in urgent collecting expeditions to place the vanishing diversity "in the fridge" with the intention to save it for future generations and for future breeding. Genebanks popped up everywhere.

FAO has recently done an analysis on the situation of these so called ex situ collections. The Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources confirms what NGOs were already fearing for a long time: there are many problems with genebanks and that the collections are not necessarily safe. Based on the findings of the report, FAO prepared an action plan to globally improve the situation. This Plan is being discussed and decided upon in an FAO conference in Leipzig this June.

The State of the World Report acknowledges that the main cause of destruction of genetic diversity lies in current mainstream agriculture. However, the GPA does not reflect this. By not recognising the cause of the problem, it does not set itself on a coherent path of recuperation and protection. It therefore contains many contradictions and has a very technocratic approach to solving problems. Among other proposals, the FAO Global Plan of Action wants to improve mainly the access to ex situ collections for breeders and biotech companies. But these are the same breeders and companies that want more privileges and undermine access over genetic resources by expanding their own intellectual property rights and monopolies. UPOV currently uses the GATT/TRIPs clauses to pressure Southern governments to jump on their bandwagon and become members of a convention on plant breeders rights which offers no real advantages for people nor governments in the Third World.

The Global Plan of Action contains some interesting proposals to promote higher levels of diversity in the farmers' fields, to monitor genetic vulnerability in crops, to promote under-utilised crops and local-level seed production and it includes a section on on-farm conservation of genetic resources. But it does not make provision for giving more control of seeds and agricultural diversity back to farmers, indigenous peoples or local communities. For NGOs this is an absolute and basic requirement. It is necessary not only as a way of improving on-farm approaches to conservation but essential for the ongoing development of sustainable agricultural biodiversity (in the form of a new undertaking), and the rights of farmers within that agreement, will also suffer. This would undermine the possibilities of achieving a protocol on agricultural biodiversity under the Convention on Biodiversity, and leave agricultural diversity to be dealt with mostly through bilateral approaches, with absolutely no protection for farmers.

- The Plan as it now stands implicitly (but timidly) acknowledges that the "free market" cannot solve the problems of agricultural biodiversity, and that in many cases it is the cause. This is very different from the type of language which is evident in the March draft for the Plan of Action to be adopted at the World Food Summit later this year, which seems as if it had been written by free trade promoters. If a reasonable GPA is adopted in Leipzig, it could help to act as a counter point to what is happening at the World Food Summit, at which agriculture is at risk of being defined merely in terms of trade interests. It could also be used to counter some of the most harmful elements in the GATT agreements.

All these would be arguments for NGOs to try to improve the Plan of Action, and try to get something useful out of Leipzig.

Many NGO's involved in these issues are primarily committed to protect and regenerate agricultural biodiversity by keeping it in the hands of local communities to continue to use, protect and develop. Clearly, different NGOs working at different levels can, do and should each have their own strategies and approaches. We do not necessarily need to all speak with the same voice, and can have different positions. In regard to the Global Plan of Action, however, NGO's should try to agree on critical elements which need to be in the Plan for it to be of any use. But we should be also ready to evaluate at what point the Plan might become counterproductive, and what to do then. At the same time, it's important to discuss the GPA in the overall political context as outlined above. We would offer the following ideas for lobby priorities at the national and international levels:

- It is important to lobby for the strengthening of the good proposals in the GPA and the weakening of the bad parts. After the first discussion among governments last April in Rome, many of the good elements ended up in square brackets meaning that they are up for discussion. Unless they are defended, they will be thrown out. There is a risk that, due to the pressure for some political success in Leipzig, the contents will be further weakened in the working group meeting prior to the Leipzig conference and at the meeting itself.

- Perhaps even more important than the contents of the GPA at this stage, is agreement on a clear, transparent and democratic process for the implementation and follow-up of the Plan. The Plan is supposed to be "rolling" which means that it can be continuously updated in the future. This makes who controls this process crucial. There is a risk that control over the follow up will rest mostly with those who put up the money, and implementation given to the CGIAR and other institutions from which local communities can expect little. NGOs should argue for a substantial place at the table in the implementation process, and a voice in defining future priorities and proposals.

- The industrialised countries have to agree that this Plan needs additional and substantial financing, and that they are ready to pay for it. One cannot expect developing countries to commit themselves to pretentious and expensive activities in the Plan, without having a clear indication on who will pay. Financing procedures should also be clear and transparent, to avoid donor preferences and pressures in the implementation of the Plan.

- It is of fundamental importance that a clear link be established between the GPA and the re-negotiation of FAO's Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. In practice, the Plan will be operationalised through the Undertaking which will establish the rules of the games with respect to access to agricultural biodiversity and the rights of farming communities. The rights of farmers and local communities are largely absent from the Plan, and will be negotiated within the Undertaking. Therefore, NGOs should lobby to strengthen the discussion on Farmers Rights in relation to the GPA, and push for political commitment to take these rights, and the renegotiation of the Undertaking seriously. In the end, all these processes should lead to a protocol on agricultural biodiversity under the Convention on Biodiversity.

Note: GRAIN has issued Biobriefing Number 6 with a full analysis and action proposals on the FAO Global Plan of Action. Available on-line at the APC network Biodiversity conference, or by mail from GRAIN.

Author: GRAIN