by GRAIN | 25 May 1993


After 15 years of evading a response to the thorny question of who owns the genetic resources held in the genebanks of the International Agricultural Research Centres, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has decided to approach FAO to construct a global solution. At a meeting of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources last month, the CG and FAO agreed to start negotiations to give the CG genebanks a firm legal status and FAO a role in their political and physical protection.


It was about time. For well over a decade, NGOs and Third World governments have been pressing for a solution to the uncertain legal status of the crop germplasm collections held by the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) -- the Green Revolution breeding institutes. As of last month, the answer might now be in sight. In a move welcomed by all, the IARCs made a formal appeal to the international community to provide them the power and responsibility of "trusteeship" over the seed collections held in their genebanks. And the answer they received was: okay, let's start negotiating what that means.

From the side of the CGIAR, a group of 40-odd donors which fund the IARCs, the move was made at the edge of desperation. For over 30 years now, the centres have been building up important and unique collections of Third World farmers ' crop varieties and their wild relatives, increasingly threatened with doom by "development" schemes and the Green Revolution's own "high-yielding varieties" which are pushed by the IARCs to replace farmers ' traditional varieties. At this stage, the international centres have nearly 600,000 seed samples in their genebanks, which according to some estimates amount to nearly 40% off all unique germplasm in storage worldwide. But to whom that treasure actually and ultimately belongs has never been adequately answered.

The flaws of informality

One part of the problem is the legal footing of the centres themselves in their host countries. Each centre is housed in its host country on the basis of a legal agreement. But in most cases, the genebanks and germplasm collections are not even mentioned in the agreements, leaving the question as to what happens to them if the Centre is dissolved a worrisome matter of speculation. In the case of centres like IRRI, ICARDA, CIP and IITA, the assets of the centre become the property of the host government upon dissolution, despite the fact that the germplasm came from all over the world. For other IARCs, the decision of what to do with the international germplasm collection upon dissolution of the institute is left open for discussion. In no case is the issue of ownership of the genebanks absolutely certain. And if all that weren 't hazy enough, several of the centres have not been established by a formal treaty signed among nation-states, meaning that they cannot even be considered "international" in the legal sense. The status of these genebanks, then, is pretty shaky.

Another part of the problem is the changing legal and political environment affecting the status of plant genetic resources at the intergovernmental level. When the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) adopted the International Undertaking in the early 1980s, the international community agreed that plant genetic resources should be treated as the common heritage of humanity since they are so vital for the future of agriculture worldwide. This move was meant to put a damper on the increasing privatisation of plant materials, practised in the industrialised countries through patent laws and plant breeders ' rights legislation. But due to resistance from the North, it was never made a legally-binding agreement. In the late 1980s, negotiations for the development of a global Convention on Biological Diversity commenced, culminating in the treaty signed at UNCED in Rio one year ago. The Convention not only asserts national sovereignty over plant genetic resources but introduces legally-binding mechanisms -- such as prior informed consent and mutually agreed terms -- governing access to them.

Despite the diplomatic initiatives, neither of these international agreements apply to the CGIAR's genebank collections. In the case of the Undertaking, the CG is not a member of FAO. In fact, the Consultative Group has no legal personality at all. It's just an informal club of donors who take decisions on the basis of "consensus", with no voting procedure, charter or by-laws. Yet those decisions strongly affect world agriculture and impact heavily on farmers throughout the Third World. As to the Biodiversity Convention, it explicitly excludes all current genebank collections from its scope. So the IARC genebanks are basically a "no wo/man's land", although the seeds they contain originate from the farms, fields, forests and gardens of countless peoples throughout the developing countries.

The international centres never really felt "left out", though. They are extremely attached to their "autonomy" and "apolitical" governance, outside of the UN's democratic (or bureaucratic -- depending how you see things) claws. However, with all the high level negotiations debating and designing the future of the world's genetic resources, the pressure on the isolated CG system to get its act straight was becoming too much. Additionally, the pressures to privatise genetic resources have increasingly been affecting the international centres. Private companies gaining access to IARC materials are patenting them in the North, a trend which legitimately worries many centre Directors. And the IARCs increasingly find it difficult to enter into joint biotechnology research programmes with labs in industrialised countries without ceding on intellectual property agreements ultimately covering the germplasm.

Given all these problems, the CG decided to elaborate an in-house policy on plant genetic resources held by the international centres. The policy, adopted in 1989, states that "collections assembled as a result of international collaboration should not become the property of any single nation, but should be held in trust for the use of present and future generations of research workers in all countries throughout the world." The problem was: who would seriously trust such a "policy" coming from an organisation with no legal identity, much less any system of accountability to farmers or Third World governments who donated those seeds in the first place? When NGOs first sat down with the IARC Directors in 1991 to press this point, their faces went blank. In their minds, everything they do is for the good of the poor -- how could anyone dare suspect them of bad faith? But now, the message that this is serious seems to start filtering through...

In the CG we trust?

The CGIAR has now decided to turn to the intergovernmental platform that FAO is to secure some kind of globally-recognised status of their genebank collections. At the fifth session of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, held at FAO headquarters in Rome last month, the CG centres offered to place their genebank collections under the auspices of FAO according to an agreement based on the concept of "trusteeship". In legal logics, trusteeship means that someone is entrusted to protect something on someone else's behalf. In this case, the CG is arguing for legal responsibility to conserve crop genetic resources of the IARCs ' mandate commodities on behalf of humanity. Trusteeship would mean that the IARCs are entrusted to maintain the germplasm collections under good technical standards and protect them from embezzlement by corporations or individual governments.

The FAO Commission discussed a paper prepared by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources on behalf of the other IARC Centres, and a proposed model agreement for signature between the two parties. While everybody in the room applauded the offer made by the CGIAR to place their collections under the auspices of FAO, questions were raised as to what the "trusteeship" concept really embodies. The Commission requested that any agreement between FAO and the IARCs include the provision that the genetic resources held in "trust" are made available without restrictions and that no intellectual property rights are applied to them. The Commission also expressed its wish to be involved in the development of CG/IARC policies related to the collections. On the basis of this understanding, the Commission accepted the CG proposal as a basis for negotiations between FAO and the CGIAR centres, and gave the green light to FAO's Director-General to get down to the nitty-gritty.

Arguably, this decision is one of the most important ones that the Commission took at its last session. Both FAO and the CGIAR are to be commended for finally taking up an issue that has been outstanding for too long. Clarifying the legal and political responsibilities of "trusteeship" and formally bestowing this function to the international centres is urgent. And devising a framework for trusteeship whereby the international community also accepts responsibility to intervene in case of problems at the genebanks and lend a voice to policies affecting the collections makes the arrangement an even-handed one of give-and-take. At stake in such an international framework for "trusteeship" is the security and future availability of some of the most important and unique genetic resources collections in the world.

Author: GRAIN