by GRAIN | 28 Jul 1994


Last month in Nairobi, governments gathered to discuss how to move forward on the Convention on Biological Diversity. To their surprise, a new issue was forced on to their agenda: news of a World Bank “coup” on the international crop germplasm collections held by the International Agricultural Research Centres of the CGIAR. NGOs present in Nairobi reported that the World Bank was intent on blocking a new agreement between the CG and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which would finally grant some legal status — “trusteeship” — to the currently unprotected and vulnerable collections. The governments rebuffed the Bank's initiative and endorsed signature of the agreement as soon as possible. This article gives the story, but also dives into the core of the matter: how well are those collections currently managed? We wish to thank Pat Mooney of RAFI for providing some of the materials for this article.


At the heated closing of the Second Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Convention on Biological Diversity (ICCBD), held 20 June-1 July in Nairobi, 112 governments unanimously called for the establishment of intergovernmental control over the genetic resources held in the genebanks of the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs). The report of the meeting calls specifically upon the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to finalise an agreement with the CG Centres to grant the IARCs trusteeship over the germplasm as soon as possible, and goes on to say that “Any attempt to create obstacles for the early conclusion of the agreement [is] unacceptable.”

This decision was tabled by the intergovernmental committee with the specific aim of halting a World Bank initiative to seize control over these invaluable seed stocks, which form the basis of world agriculture. The CG Centres hold over half a million seed samples in ex-situ storage, representing some 40% of all unique samples held by genebanks worldwide. While those seeds were collected from farmers fields throughout the developing world, their legal status within the IARC genebanks is extremely unclear. These and all other current ex-situ collections were deliberately left out of the Convention on Biological Diversity by Northern interests, as it sets new rules of international equity in access to the world's genetic resources. Efforts to establish intergovernmental authority over the CG's valuable collections was threatened just before the Nairobi meeting by sudden interest of the World Bank to scuttle an imminent agreement between the CG and FAO, and possibly with the Convention itself, on access to, ownership of and benefit sharing from these materials.

The New Delhi coup

A few weeks before Nairobi, the CGIAR's Northern-dominated group of donors met in New Delhi to discuss “ordinary” business. The CGIAR, with an annual budget of about US$300 million, was in the midst of a deep financial crisis — the worst in its 23 year history. Stepping out of the ordinary, Ismail Serageldin — a World Bank Vice-President who also chairs the CGIAR — suddenly rushed forward to relieve the crisis, forgiving old debts and offering the Group new, unbudgeted funds ultimately leveraging US$70-75 million. In return, however, Ismail Serageldin demanded that the loose-knit network of 18 IARCs be brought to heel. Serageldin decided to create a CG Steering Committee under his own direction and placed a World Bank official — Michel Petit — in charge of the CGIAR's new Finance Committee. But most disturbing in this quest for Bank “leadership” of the CG, he personally blocked the signing of the FAO trusteeship agreement with the IARCs and announced that he wished to have other options studied. Pat Mooney of RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), the only NGO attending the New Delhi meeting, became alarmed. The European governments also began to fear that the Bank was somehow becoming too powerful. When Serageldin blocked the FAO-CGIAR deal to place the CGIAR's major asset — its gene banks — under intergovernmental control, the concern grew only deeper.

Three weeks later, the Bank's move was brought to the attention of the governments in Nairobi by some 40 major environment and development NGOs, after RAFI had received a letter dated 16 June from Ismail Serageldin stating that “it would be foolhardy to lock [the international collections held by the IARCs] into [such] agreements”. In that letter, he stressed that any agreement should be held off until at least 1996. The letter was clear proof that the Bank was opposed to placing the genebanks under intergovernmental authority, as already agreed to — and about to be signed — by the IARCs and FAO.

The counter attack

By the time the ICCBD meeting got under way on 20 June in Nairobi, many NGOs and most governments were aligning against the World Bank's coup attempt. A news report leaked by GRAIN to the prestigious Financial Times of London appeared on the news stands on the morning of 21 June, sending Nairobi delegates into a fury. The Swedish and Malaysians governments rose that afternoon to officially attack the World Bank for its move, and their declarations were supported rotundly by India and the Philippines. During the following days, RAFI, GRAIN and Third World Network hosted lunchtime briefing sessions for delegations on the situation. FAO and CGIAR also convened separate noon-time seminars where the World Bank issue dominated.

Toward the end of the intergovernmental meeting in Nairobi, when the delegates reached the formal agenda item on what to do with the ex-situ collections currently outside the Convention, over thirty countries took the floor to express their concern about the Bank's “coup”. As recorded in the report of the meeting, governments “strongly supported the efforts to bring [the CGIAR's germplasm collections] under the auspices of FAO.” Specifically, “Delegates expressed strong support for finalising the agreement between the FAO and the IARCs as soon as possible.” The final report goes on to say that “Some representatives stated that any attempt to create obstacles for the early conclusion of the agreement was unacceptable” and “One representative [ Sweden] requested that this message be carried to the Chairman of the CGIAR [Ismail Serageldin] by the Chairman of the ICCBD.”

 Given the controversy in the room, Dr. Geoffrey Hawtin of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), speaking formally on behalf of the CGIAR, found himself forced to over-turn Serageldin's position completely. “The international community,” he announced to the tense assembly, “has long recognised the need to establish a legal and political identity for the ex-situ collections managed by the CGIAR by placing them under the auspices of an intergovernmental authority.” He affirmed that “It is intended that the agreement will be signed [between the CGIAR and FAO] during the next few months”. Members of the large CGIAR delegation present would not say whether or not the text of Hawtin's statement had been approved by Ismail Serageldin, but it was clear that the IARCs felt themselves under intense pressure to respond to the angry governments and NGOs.

The Bank has been forced to retreat — for the moment. The Nairobi meeting resounded a unanimous push to sign the agreement between FAO and the IARCs with no further delay, and there is an option to bring the whole deal under the Convention at a later stage. Which does not mean the battle is over.

Reasons for concern

The Delhi-Nairobi skirmish is merely the latest in a long series of incidents and examples which demonstrate the ineptness of the CGIAR in safeguarding the world's most valuable treasure chest of biological resources which underpin our food system. Why is it that a system like the CGIAR seems such an easy prey for the World Bank? To a large extent it can be blamed on the clumsiness of the CG system itself in dealing with their genetic stockpile of farmers ' previously used crop varieties. NGOs, worried about misappropriation of these seeds, have been urging to bring the CG's world collections under intergovernmental control since many years. Back in 1987, the CG Centres were officially asked by the FAO to bring their genebanks under FAO's auspices or jurisdiction. Still, no action on their side until very recently, and only after mounting pressure from government circles, NGOs and the public opinion. Normally the CGIAR praises itself for its loose and unbureaucratic structure, which allows it to act fast and flexibly. Not on this issue, it seems.

There are enough reasons for concern. One is the enormous value of the genestocks the IARCs are collectively holding. Another is the fact that the vast bulk of these materials were taken freely from farmers in developing countries and now we do not know who ultimately “owns” them. Another problem with the collections held in the IARCs is the availability of information on them. GRAIN is currently trying to assess what data does exist on the CG collections, and we find enormous gaps. Although IPGRI and FAO are currently working to upgrade the databases containing this data, answering obvious questions such as where the stored seeds come from, what type of materials they are and in which conditions they are being conserved, etc. is not an easy job. The scattered information we were able to pull together, though, fuels more concern:

* No return address?

The Convention on Biological Diversity marks a new era in which countries of origin of all (to be) collected biological samples are finally supposed to receive some of the benefits derived from the use of those materials. Although collections of farmers ' seeds assembled by scientists in the past are currently excluded from the Convention, negotiations are now starting in the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources to try to apply the same rules to them as well, possibly through the adoption of a special protocol to the Convention.

While the government negotiators will undoubtedly have a hard time in trying to figure out what will be the new rules of the game, those currently maintaining the collections might face an even tougher job in trying to figure out where the seeds they hold originally came from. In many cases that information simply doesn 't exist, at least not in the databases available from IPGRI and FAO, the two institutions trying to keep track of such information at the global level. According to their databases, information on the country of origin is only available for 22% of the accessions held in the CG system (and for 27% of the national collections). While it is obvious that IPGRI and FAO are not the only sources of information for this question — direct queries to individual genebanks by GRAIN is already yielding new and additional information — this does indicate that an important information gap exists and has to be filled.

* Distorted benefit flows

In its public relation materials, the CGIAR is loud and proud about the alleged benefits of its research and genebanks for farmers in developing countries. The CG claims credit for the approximate increase of US$50 billion in the Third World's production of rice and wheat since the 1960s. They point to the more than 750 new varieties of wheat, rice, maize, pearl millet, sorghum, potato, cassava and field bean released by or through the Centres since their establishment. Also they profess to have trained anywhere between 20,000 and 45,000 scientists of developing countries. Perhaps most importantly, they point to the tremendous amount of germplasm — 745,000 samples, both unadulterated and “improved”, in 1987-1991 — which has been distributed to support national and international research programmes. There is no escape but to conclude that the benefits arising from the work of the CGIAR to agriculture in developing countries has been tremendous, or so it seems.

However, a number of details are omitted from these truly exciting reports. Often, when the CG points to the tremendous increase in the dollar value of crops such as rice and wheat, they forget to factor in the additional costs for the external inputs required for that production increase. Also, in contrast to the spectacular harvest increases in wheat and rice, there are equally spectacular losses in the harvests of numerous “minor” crops and other major food supplements from the farm, which have been largely ignored or decimated by the Green Revolution. The impressive amount of new varieties introduced by or through the Centres, hides the even more impressive list of local varieties they replaced.

Perhaps the most important function of the CG Centres has been the channelling of germplasm to national agricultural research programmes, thus facilitating a great supply of germplasm to scientists in the South. Were it not for the IARCs, such a germplasm diffusion mechanism would have to be re-invented, as no other institution in the world is carrying out this very useful task. However, when the CGIAR system did a self-evaluation of its genetic resources activities in the form of a Stripe Study earlier this year, it came to a startling conclusion on its role as a global germplasm traffic cop. Of the famous 745,000 seed samples sent out to researchers upon request, “45% were distributed within the System and its associated international institutions; one-third was distributed within respective host countries [of the individual Centres]; and one-fifth went to other countries, with a small but growing proportion going directly to the private sector.” The picture emerging from these data is a CGIAR which distributes its germplasm mainly within itself — between its own Centres and their respective host countries — with only one-fifth of all the material leaving the setup. Who then benefits from the CGIAR? Well, the CGIAR at least!

But also benefitting immensely from the germplasm of the CG system are the CG's financial donors in the North. Both IARC genebank materials and enhanced germplasm developed by the Centres regularly find their way into the countryside of the North, providing multi-billion dollar benefits to industries, farmers and consumers throughout the industrialised world (see box on page 15). While hard to quantify, the net resource flow from Northern donors to the CGIAR is actually reverse for many countries.

* Genetic insecurity

Duplication of genetic material is a key feature of ex-situ germplasm management and it takes place in many ways. When international collecting missions are carried out, duplicates of the materials collected should — as a rule — be left with the country visited. When genebanks send out materials to institutions which request samples, those materials are in effect being duplicated. And finally, genebanks should — again, as a rule — place their materials in backup safety storage in other genebanks. This last form of duplication, specifically meant as a safety measure, is generally agreed as a basic security measure in case some or all samples of a collection are lost for whatever reason. Anyone in the CG system would agree.

But again, also on this matter the CG does not live up to its own standards. The Strip Study mentioned earlier on genetic resources in the CG system provides an interesting table on safety duplications of the IARC collections. Although the Study itself doesn 't draw any specific conclusion, that table offers revealing data. At most, just over one-third (35%) of all the CGIAR's collection has been duplicated for safety storage somewhere. (“At most” because there is overlap in the samples duplicated.) The other two-thirds have not been duplicated at all or the CG does not have the information about it. Of the 78 back-up collections currently detailed, only 12 (15%) are held by national genebanks of developing countries, the CG's germplasm donors. The rest is being held in the North — the financial donors to the System — or by the IARCs themselves. The Stripe Study also points out that only 9% of the total CGIAR collection is backed up on the basis of a formal written agreement with the recipient institute: with 6 of the 78 backup institutions.

This situation raises some interesting questions. The overall picture is that the CG is not meeting its own expectations: only one-third of its collections is backed up for safety somewhere, and less then 10% of the materials are duplicated with a clear written agreement on what happens to the germplasm. The rest of the duplicates held in cooperating genebanks are without legal identity in the best of cases. In the worst of cases, governments could interpret that these collections were received prior to the coming into force of the Convention on Biological Diversity and form part of their national collections. The USA, which holds at least 53% of all IARC duplicates now in back-up storage, has traditionally held that germplasm which enters national territory becomes national property. Given the lack of institutional arrangement over the IARC back-ups, this is problematic. Aside from it appearing rather “unsafe” to back-up over half of the CG “safety” collections in one single country, for reasons of national interest government authorities such as the US could legally assert that the CG backups held in their country fall under their national sovereignty.

* Policy pandemonium

Perhaps the most glaring example of how the CGIAR tends to be clumsy with its policies on germplasm is the way it has been handling the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs). The open controversy started in 1991 when a draft policy statement on IPRs for ICRISAT was leaked out by GRAIN. In that statement, this CG Centre claimed that “ICRISAT will assert control over intellectual property only where it appears necessary to make technology transfer effective or to protect the interest of intended beneficiaries.” It went on to say that ICRISAT-held germplasm with useful genes in it will be distributed to users in developing countries “in accordance with any agreement we have with that country.” It also talked about the need to take out licences and raised the possibility of delaying publication of research results. The draft ICRISAT policy statement was produced after a hastily organised seminar that brought together industry, university people and IARC administrators, and when it was openly distributed by GRAIN in the form of a special issue of our Disclosures series, all hell broke lose. It was the first time that an IARC — a public institution after all, dependent on germplasm and financial infusions from its donors — openly admitted that it was considering applying intellectual property restrictions on its genebank and research materials.

Even within the system, many eyebrows went up and some people were seriously annoyed. The possibility that Northern donors — of which the Europeans were harbouring intense debates on the patenting of life in their own countries — would start asking questions was real. As well, an inter-Centre working group had just been established to figure out what to do with this tricky issue, when ICRISAT already came with its own draft policy statement. Quickly, the Director of the CG's International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) started moving to get a statement from his Board endorsing that at least the basic rice germplasm stock at IRRI would not be patented (which finally materialised in 1993). Then the CG released a “working document” (still not a policy statement) stressing that “Centres do not seek IPRs unless it is absolutely necessary to ensure access by developing countries to new technologies and products.” The issue came up again and again at the annual “Centres Week” meetings. Each year more controversy, but still nothing decided. Yet another CGIAR “Statement on Plant Genetic Resources”, presented to the ICCBD Nairobi meeting last 16 June, gives it another twist: now the Centres “should not seek to benefit financially from the commercialisation of germplasm, but should help developing countries obtain financial benefit when opportunities occur.” A declaration here and a waft of paper there. There are still more holes than substance in the CG's ideas on what rules to apply to IARC germplasm and breeding materials. After lots of pressure and talk, the CG seems to be slip-sliding its way towards something which one could properly call a coherent policy, but we 're still a way from it.

One cannot help getting a feeling of amateurism and ad hoc decision-making when trying to track the CG record in policy setting. The intentionally maintained “informal structure” of the CG — meant to guarantee efficiency — seems fast on the way to promoting the opposite. The CG seems to be stumbling from one controversy into the other, without really wanting to do so but also without really knowing how to avoid it. Coupled with this comes an increasingly uneasy feeling about the capacity of the system to keep its technical record in shape — when technical superiority was the very rationale for the whole setup. The information system on its genetic resources is not at all ready to respond to demands from new legal realities being established at the international level. Criteria for safety standards and backup facilities are not being lived up to. Germplasm exchange mainly taking place within the system, rather than outside it...

The attempt of the World Bank to turn itself into a World Gene Bank might not be the last one. It is high time that the invaluable treasure chest formed by the 4 million or so seed samples gathered from farmer's fields and markets — and the whole system putting this asset to work — is brought to a sound political, legal and technical footing. As limited as it might be, garnering new direction through the international community — in the form of a one-country-one-vote intergovernmental body — might be the only way forward.


CGIAR, Stripe Study on Genetic Resources in the CGIAR, Washington DC, AGR/TAC:IAR/94 /2.1, 26 April 1994.

GRAIN, “Preliminary Survey of Existing Ex-Situ Collections of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture”, consultancy report to the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, May 1994 (unpublished).

Geoff Tansey , “World Bank accused of attempting raid on gene reserves,” Financial Times, London, Tuesday 21 June 1994, p. 28.

Convention on Biological Diversity, Interim Secretariat, Report of the Second Session of the Intergovernmental Committee of the Convention on Biological Diversity, UNEP, Nairobi, July 1994.

Author: GRAIN