by GRAIN | 15 Mar 1994


Since the late 1970s, the member states of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation have pioneered a global initiative to set up a more equitable system for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. By the late 1980s, FAO's work in this area was eclipsed by growing popular attention to biological diversity at large, and the political heat around the negotiations of the Convention on Biodiversity. While FAO maintains its historic foot in the crop scene, the Biodiversity Convention establishes new rules for all forms of genetic resources. To avoid overlap and promote a solid programme for biodiversity specifically important to food and agriculture, a new relation between FAO's work and the Convention are necessary.


Lately, the discussions on the future of biodiversity have been dominated by the debate on what to do with the Biodiversity Convention. This Convention, which entered into force in December 1993, aims to address all biological resources on earth — from saving the diversity in the wild forests of Bhutan to redressing the uniformity in the farmers ' potato fields in Britain. Trying to tackle such a tremendously broad spectrum of problems, including all the related cross-cutting issues (be it the role of indigenous people, or that of the biotechnology industries) has not proven easy indeed. The first official intergovernmental meeting to figure out what to do with the Convention, held last October in Geneva, was characterised by chaos and uncertainty. Hopefully the next one, now planned from the 20th of June to the 1st of July in Nairobi, will make some progress.

The Convention on Biological Diversity constitutes the highest legal authority concerning biodiversity, including that related to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. However, the Convention neglects to deal with two important areas — the status of ex situ collections of plant genetic resources collected prior to the Convention (i.e. the holdings in the world's genebanks) and the issue of “farmers ' rights.” These outstanding matters were explicitly left hanging, to be solved later on and perhaps in some other forum. These are extremely important issues. Genebank collections form the prime resource base for current plant breeding, and thus for the future of agriculture. “Farmers ' rights” have been hotly debated over the past decade and the international community finally agreed on a general definition of the term at FAO. If strengthened and implemented, farmers ' rights could be an important mechanism to address concerns for equity and local communities in the Biodiversity Convention.

FAO in the meantime?

The discussions around the Biodiversity Convetnion have largely overshadowed the on-going negotiation process about the future of plant genetic resources within FAO. Over the past few years, FAO has taken a low-profile “wait and see” attitude while the public's eyes were glued on the drafting of the controversial Convention. However, FAO is now moving forward on what it calls “that part of biodiversity which feeds us”. Last November, the FAO Conference decided to take action on the following fronts:

1. The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources will be revised, to make it more coherent and to make it compatible with the Biodiversity Convention. One major discrepency to clear up is the Undertaking's regard toward genetic resources as “common heritage” and the Convention's definition of the same resources as “national sovereignty”.

2. A “Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources” will be drawn up to assess the status of genetic erosion and survey the programmes and activities that aim to do something about it.

3. A “Global Plan of Action" on plant genetic resources will be developed to specify what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and who will benefit from it.

All of this is supposed to be finalised in 1996 when the fourth FAO “International Technical Conference (ITC) on Plant Genetic Resources” is held in Germany. The ITC— attended by high-level government officials — is expected to endorse the new Undertaking, as well as the State of World report and Plan of Action. The Conference may also propose that the Undertaking become a protocol to the Biodiversity Convention. This might strengthen FAO's prominant role in the crop portion of the biodiversity pie. Whether the Undertaking and FAO's action programme remain limited to plants or are logically expanded to include all agricultural diversity — forestry, fisheries and livestock — is still an open question. Broadened with care, a comprehensive package of instruments dealing with the agricultural side of biodiversity could be built from the seeds sown at FAO and incorporated into the Convention.

This is a highly ambitious but dearly needed initiative. After over a decade of North-South political bickering at FAO, we are moving towards something concrete and action-oriented.The coming three years leading to the 1996 Technical Conference should be used to turn past political achievements into useful activities and integrated agreements.

Previous FAO “Technical Conferences” on plant genetic resources were wholly technical indeed. Since the last one in 1981, however, the conservation and utilisation — as well as the politics and economics — of plant genetic resources have moved to centre stage. In that sense, the upcoming Conference should not be viewed as either completely “technical,” nor indeed as simply a “conference”. Its preparatory process will probably prove to be more important than the meeting itself.

The ITC process

The obstacles are formidable, though. Not least is the speed and efficiency with which FAO's well-known bureaucracy can move. Equally difficult is the opposition which some interests might mount in order to prevent FAO from continuing to try to play a lead role in biodiversity issues related to agriculture. Already back in 1990, FAO started talking about a technical conference, while plans of action and state of the world reports were on its agenda since the 1980s. Only a few months ago, the bureaucracy started moving with formal appointments of personnel and official endorsements by the FAO Conference. Lots of valuable time has gotten lost and keeps on getting lost. Funding of the Technical Conference and its preparatory process is still a problem. While all countries enthusiastically support the idea, some don 't translate it into financial and political commitment. At this point, however, there seems to be broad agreement on the aims and strategy of the initiative, from developed and developing countries alike.

The ideas of the people in FAO responsible for the preparations are exciting. Dr. Cary Fowler — the former programme director of RAFI — is in charge of the whole process, and talks enthusiastically about how governments and NGOs alike should be involved in it from the very beginning. The space is there, and the idea is to offer a country-driven approach in developing the State of the World Report and Global Plan of Action. FAO is encouraging countries to involve the whole genetic resources community in the formulation of country reports. These reports will be presented at a series of sub-regional meetings around the world to which NGOs, the private sector, independent scientists and others will be invited, beginning perhaps as soon as late 1994 or early 1995. It would appear that opportunities for input and NGO participation will come at the national and sub-regional level, leading up to the global Conference itself. FAO is planning an electronic communications capability which will provide access to key documents, studies, etc., through e-mail and bulletin boards — all of them accessible by NGOs. For NGOs the point seems clear: if we are to have any influence on the outcome of the ITC, our focus should be on this preparatory process making sure that the right data are on the table, the right questions asked, and the right proposals made.

Towards another peace plan?

While FAO tries to get its plant genetic resources act together and everyone figures how it could best relate to the broader Biodiversity Convention, there are moves to bring peace in another old war: the management of and control over the genebanks of the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs). The IARC collections contain some 40% of the world's unique samples of plant genetic resources held in ex situ storage. However, access to these genebanks and rules on who can own or control the treasure of farmers ' seeds they containt is left to the wishes and good will of the indivdual IARCs. To the advantage of the North, all current genebank collection are excluded from the rules of the Biodiversity Convention.

In this void, the IARCs are seeking some kind of agreement on their collections. As reported in an earlier Seedling (May 1993), the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which rune ths IARC network) came to FAO last year proposing to bring the international collections under the auspices of the international community by establishing IARC “trusteeship” over the materials. FAO accepted, and is currently negotiating with them what exactly trusteeship might mean. It could — and should — mean a lot, including rules on intellectual property rights and a system to return some of the benefits derived from the IARC seed stores back to the countries and farmers where the germplasm came from.

Also, within the CG system itself things are moving fast. Under heavy pressure from Northern donors to become more effective, more sustainable, and more relevant to farmers, the system is going through a traumatic process of merging, moving, cutting and pasting of individual research Centres and rehauling programme lines. While nobody inside the system seems very sure yet where all this will lead to, there is already a new proposal on the table which would bring unprecedented change to how agricultural biodiversity is managed.

Discussions are under way to bring all IARC genebank collections under the responsibility of one new agency — a restructured IPGRI — which would also take on animal genetic resources. The CGIAR would then be fully engaged in plant, forestry, aquatic and livestock diversity. In turn, this new agbiodiversity IARC would link itself to the international community through formal arrangements with an intergovernmental organisation, probably FAO. This seems to make sense compared to the current situation where each IARC can do what it likes with “its” genebank collections.

Sewing the strings of a package

If FAO's process towards the Technical Conference is successful, if the restructuring of the genetic resources component of the IARCs materialises, and if the IARC-FAO honeymoon on trusteeship and oversight turns into a solid marriage, then one can speak of truly new management scheme for safeguarding and promoting on agricultural biodiversity. Done well, it would pool together a massive amount of unique agricultural biodiversity under a clear set of international rules on how to handle it. More so, it provides a basis for a comprehensive action plan involving all the major players which are now doing their own thing - governments, conventions, FAO, the CG, genebanks, NGOs and industry. If the actors, the agreements, the resources and the action plans were wisely and carefully merged, we could secure a truly integrated package plan for agricultural biodiversity at large.

A lot needs to be done before that happens. It is pretty safe to assume that unless NGOs, farmers and peoples ' organisations have a voice in all of this, one of the major components in the agricultural genetic resources business will not be sufficiently addressed: the role and needs of, and benefits for, Third World farmers. FAO's Technical Conference process and UN platform offer NGOs a space to get involved and advocate the policy and programme needs that would best serve farmers in the South.

Author: GRAIN