by GRAIN | 25 Mar 1996

March 1996



A number of important international negotiations on agricultural biodiversity will take place during 1996. There is an enormous challenge to make progress in placing the management of plant genetic resources in a political context that recognises the central role and contribution of poor countries and poor farmers. This year could also provide the departure point for new strategies to conserve and use genetic diversity, as it becomes increasingly clear that the approach to store that diversity away in genebanks is not working, or at least not enough. However, 1996 might also result in the further privatisation of genetic resources to the benefit of big breeding and biotech industries, to the detriment of agricultural biodiversity and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods.

This year could go down in history as the year of agricultural biodiversity politics. For those involved in the discussions at the international level on how to manage agricultural biodiversity it seems that everything has come together this year:

* The renegotiation of FAO’s International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU) may reach its conclusion before the year is over. This voluntary agreement on the conservation and exchange of plant germplasm, which dates back over a decade, is up for revision. The most important issues to be resolved are agreeing on a multilateral system for the exchange of plant genetic resources, and the formulation of the rights of farmers within such a system. If an acceptable deal is found, it should provide the basis for a legally binding agreement on this critical aspect of biodiversity, ideally as a special protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

* In June, FAO’s fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources (ITC4) is expected to adopt a Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources, as well as a State of the World report analysing the global state of these resources. More than just another conference, this meeting is the culmination of several years of work involving 12 regional and subregional preparatory meetings, the drawing up of 151 country reports, and much discussion on the shape of the future system to conserve and use agricultural biodiversity. If successful, the meeting should set the direction, develop the framework, and mobilise support for concerted action in this field.

* The November meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-3) has agricultural biodiversity as a special agenda item. It will also discuss the rights of local and indigenous communities, many of them farmers. COP-3 should consider the outputs of ITC4 and the IU negotiations and decide how to deal with agricultural biodiversity within this overall framework. Depending on the political will to move, the meeting could make decisions on the adoption of a special protocol on agricultural biodiversity.

* FAO’s World Food Security Summit will also be held in November. This could and should be an important forum for agricultural biodiversity. The heads of state meeting at the Summit have the opportunity to draw world attention to the precarious nature of the global food supply, and underline the important role of biodiversity in improving food security.

* Finally, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) may complete its self-proclaimed "renewal process" in 1996. This group -- which was the engine behind the Green Revolution -- came under heavy criticism from NGOs and financial donors alike for promoting unsustainable agriculture and for being a Northern-dominated club with a research agenda in the interest of the rich in the North, rather than the poor in the South. As a result, the system went through a renewal process, which has been criticised by many as a face-lifting operation, rather that a genuine effort to address the problems. The culmination of this process will show whether the CGIAR is into window-dressing or open for real change.

Many argue that this flurry of international initiatives and conferences are of little significance. At the local level, the majority of the world’s farmers continue their struggle for survival, often handling complex and diverse farming system and in the process saving an impressive amount of agricultural biodiversity on which the rest of the world depends. Very often they do so against the advice of governmental extension officers and industry seed and pesticide dealers who continue to promote Green Revolution uniformity and the heavy use of external, chemical inputs. To these people, any agreement signed by governments in plush conference rooms far away seem to make little difference to their livelihoods.

Still, we argue that in 1996 there is a lot to win, and a lot to lose, for those concerned with the future of agricultural biodiversity and the lives of resource poor farmers. In a sense, the renegotiation of the International Undertaking, the adoption of a Global Plan of Action and the formulation of an agricultural biodiversity protocol under the biodiversity convention, could bring to conclusion 15 years of struggle to place the management of plant genetic resources in a political context that recognises the central role and contribution of poor countries and poor farmers. It could also provide the departure point for new strategies to conserve genetic diversity, as it becomes increasingly clear that the approach to store that diversity in genebanks is not working, or at least not enough. This is the optimist’s scenario for 1996. The pessimist’s scenario is that all these negotiations simply result in the further privatisation of genetic resources to the benefit of big breeding and biotech industries, to the detriment of agricultural biodiversity and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods.

Leipzig: make or break?

There is reason for both optimism and concern. The preparations for the FAO-hosted International Technical Conference (ITC4), to be held in Leipzig in June, have been characterised by an intent to provide for a broad participatory process in which all actors, views and perspectives are taken into account. The building up of an information base from the country level from which to construct an unbiased picture of the current state of plant genetic resources, and from there draw a Global Plan of Action that addresses real needs and concerns, has been an approach unparalleled by any other recent UN negotiating process. It is too early for a full assessment of the documents that are to be adopted at ITC4 (FAO is still keeping them close to its chest) but from the bits and pieces we’ve seen and heard, there are both encouraging and discouraging elements.

The information provided through the different country and regional meeting reports leads to the inescapable conclusion that the current genebank system as the way to conserve and manage genetic resources has failed. The past decade has seen a enormous proliferation of genebanks, but the health of the seeds stored is dubious, to say the least. One indication of this is the regeneration rate of the seeds stored. To keep the seeds in the bank alive they need to be grown out once in a while. The country reports indicate that almost half of all the stored seed samples in the world are in urgent need of regeneration. For many of them it is probably already too late. NGOs, who have warned in the past that genetic erosion in the genebanks might be as high as in the field, could prove to be right. Apart from the problem that many seeds in the banks are dead or dying, many countries complain that they are not being used - not by breeders, and certainly not by farmers. Many countries are worried that the seeds in their bank are not characterised, that many local "marginal" crop species are overlooked, and that wild relatives of the crops are totally forgotten. Virtually all administrators complain about the inadequacy of funding. The picture emerging from this consultative process is very bleak.

The evidence coming out of the preparatory process of the ITC4 should be used to reconsider the role and rationale of the entire genebank system. A much more participatory approach, which combines in situ, on farm and ex situ methods should be developed. In addition, the connection between conservation and development must be central to any action plan coming out of Leipzig. Not only are the genebanks disconnected from plant breeders, they are also far away from farmers. The bleak picture of the state of the world’s genebanks is somewhat offset by promising experiences reported by countries of farmer-based genetic resources activities, which calls for more attention to these kind of approaches. However, there is a real risk that Leipzig will recommend "more of the same", and mostly mobilise funds and energy to prop up the precarious genebank approach. The scene continues to be dominated by managers of -- and firm believers in -- genebanks. While there is a need to save stored seed samples and rationalise the ex situ approach, any action plan coming out of Leipzig that does not firmly break the genebank dominance, that does not develop bold initiatives to promote diversity through use by farmers, that does not define action in partnership with farmers, will be considered a failure.

Access and Farmers’ Rights

Parallel to the preparations for ITC4 are the negotiations to revise the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU). Partly as a result of the new legal status of genetic resources resulting from the implementation of the Convention on Biodiversity, this voluntary agreement is now being renegotiated into a legally binding deal, possibly as a protocol to the Convention. The forum for discussion is the FAO-housed Commission on Plant Genetic Resources that has governed the IU since its creation in 1983. Originally the idea was to sign the new Undertaking in Leipzig, but progress in the negotiations have been slow due to a number of controversial issues. Two meetings of the Commission are planned this year to speed up the process: one in April and one in October. A fistful of hot issues are on the table, including the scope of the new agreement; the rules of the game with respect to access to genetic resources; and the implementation of Farmers’ Rights.

As with the Leipzig process, the renegotiation of the IU is full of challenges and pitfalls. The aim is to establish a multilateral agreement on the exchange of, and access to, crop genetic resources and related benefit-sharing agreements. The argument is that agricultural germplasm has been exchanged all over the globe for centuries, which makes bilateral agreements extremely difficult. At the last meeting of the Commission, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) of the CGIAR was asked to prepare a discussion paper on this matter, and the first drafts of this paper started circulating early this year. Its contents are worrying. The proposals support a free exchange system for crop genetic resources for research and non-for-profit use, with commercial users being required to negotiate a share of the profits with the country where the genetic material was collected.

The principle seems OK: try to keep current exchange of crop germplasm as unrestricted as possible and share any commercial benefits through bilateral deals. In practice, however, such "sharing" of benefits would probably be heavily biased away from the countries of origin (with no benefits for the people who actually nurtured the resources!), could be very costly to monitor and defend, and very easy to undermine.

The problem with this and several other proposals on the exchange of genetic resources, is that they all avoid the crucial question of "Rights", especially the rights of local communities that have developed and nurtured this diversity in the first place. The concept of "Farmers’ Rights" was introduced by the FAO almost a decade ago, but has remained without substance ever since. Any discussion on access, including the Global Plan of Action, should be closely linked to (or actually flow from) a coherent, comprehensive and workable mechanism for Farmers Rights. Such Rights, should be based on the recognition that agricultural genetic resources are a heritage of farming -- peasant, fishing, pastoral, forest -- communities and should aim to strengthen the control of farming communities over their genetic resources in particular, and their livelihoods in general.

Some NGOs are concerned that if the concept of Farmers’ Rights remains as feeble and non-committal as it is now, it merely serves as a justification for the current status quo in which farmers are supposed to give, share and contribute, without having any rights to benefit, participate, or control. Others are concerned that the formulation of such rights should not be kept in FAO’s domain, in the light of its not-so-splendid record of taking the environment and local communities into account. Those working with indigenous peoples are especially concerned that the existing concept of farmers will undermine the advances these peoples have already achieved in other for in establishing their rights to land, heritage and self-determination.

GRAIN shares all these concerns. Unless Farmers Rights is turned into a meaningful, implementable and powerful tool that returns some control over agrobiodiversity and agricultural development back to the level of local communities, we might as well do away with the whole concept. Special care should be taken not to undermine any rights already acquired by other groups, especially indigenous peoples, and any agreement reached should explicitly spell this out. The discussion should be broadened out from the FAO, and should especially be brought into the Convention of Biodiversity.

The Convention and agricultural biodiversity

At the third meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Biodiversity Convention (COP-3), to be held in November in Buenos Aires, delegates will specifically deal with agricultural biodiversity, consider the outcome of Leipzig, and look at progress with the renegotiation of the IU. They will also discuss the implementation of Article 8j, which deals with the knowledge of indigenous and local communities. These are all very important discussions, and if handled well COP-3 could take some important steps forward, not only in the field of agricultural biodiversity but also in the arena of the rights of indigenous and local communities.

As we have argued for a long time, the logical place for a final agreement on agricultural biodiversity is as a special legally binding protocol under the Biodiversity Convention. This is a notion which is increasingly being accepted in the policy arena, including FAO. COP-3 could take valuable steps in this direction. Whether or not the renegotiated IU is ready, delegates should start looking at how, in which form, and under which conditions agricultural biodiversity can be incorporated under the Convention. COP-3 could also help to nose the discussions along in FAO and ensure that the issues of rights are addressed properly.

In the "rights" arena, COP-3 has an important challenge as well. Just as the original concept of "Farmers’ Rights" was a very timid start in recognising the contributions and role of peasants in genetic resources management, so the Convention’s statements on the protection of innovation and knowledge of local and indigenous communities (Art. 8j) is only a tentative step in the right direction. It is important that this article is further elaborated in a way that it effectively enables communities to regain control over their knowledge and biological resources.

Getting the priorities straight

With the flurry of international biodiversity initiatives in 1996, it is easy to get lost. In relation to agriculture it is important to remind ourselves of some central principles:

* Any legal instrument and action plan must clearly spell out how local farming communities managing genetic resources will be supported and empowered. What measures will be taken to ensure that local farming communities retain and increase control over their genetic resources? Rather than mere "compensation" for their contribution, local farming communities need control over their resources.

* This logically means that the centre of gravity of any concerted effort must move from ex situ conservation to the on-farm management of genetic resources. For too long the international community has stored the world’s diversity away from farmers and away from use. For too long the world has based agricultural development on uniformity coming out of laboratories, rather than on the diversity originating from farmers’ fields and livelihoods.

* On the legal front farming communities must be granted unequivocal rights over their germplasm and knowledge. This should not only include the right to benefit from, to share and to further develop crop germplasm, but also the right to say "no" to any intended appropriation or commercialisation of their resources and knowledge. This logically means that any agreement on Prior Informed Consent procedures should include full participation and consent of those working with agricultural biodiversity at the local levels.

* Full participation of local farming communities in the setting of priorities and implementation of agricultural research, be it at the local, national or international levels, must be guaranteed. This has important implications for the current research systems, at both national and international levels.

Author: GRAIN