by GRAIN | 10 Jul 1991


After an intensive three-year off-the record battle in plenaries, working groups and bilateral discussions, the Keystone International Dialogue on Plant Genetic Resources came to a final-final consensus at its last session in Oslo from 31 May to 4 June. As a result, a "Global Initiative" to urgently save the resources on which the world's agricultural production depends, was launched into the public for international action.


The Keystone Dialogue Series on Plant Genetic Resources was initiated by the US-based Keystone Foundation to bring together the diverse and often conflicting parties involved in genetic resources work to try to find some areas of consensus in this highly controversial field. At the beginning, in a somewhat uneasy atmosphere, we from the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) found ourselves at the table with representatives of the seed and biotechnology multinationals, directors of gene banks, officials from the Green Revolution institutes and UN system and many others with some stake in the discussion on the future of the global genetic resources. After so many years of mutual criticism, we were supposed to start talking.

This tough process began back in 1988 and took the participants through three long plenaries, numerous workshops and most continents of the planet. While the dialogue was, at some points, on the verge of breakdown when the gaps between different positions seemed too wide to bridge, it managed to stumble further along and actually get some good work done. The end result of it all, apart from breaking down suspicion among the actors and providing for a better understanding of each others ' positions, is the "Global Initiative for the Security and Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources".

The Initiative, in the form of the final consensus report of the Dialogue Series, starts off with a critical assessment the current problems. In the past, those responsible for the conservation of plant genetic resources often blurred the need for urgent action by obstinately defending the international genetic resources system and downplaying any problems with the current gene bank approach. Now, finally, broad consensus seems to be emerging that not all is well with the genebank system. The report comes out with strong statements on the inadequacy of most genebank collections, points to problems with storage ("in some cases, we may be losing as much diversity in the genebanks as we are in the field"), and criticises the situation with respect to documentation, evaluation and exchange of the collected materials.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging elements of the Initiative is its recognition and integration of the activities at the community level in any sustainable approach to the conservation of genetic resources. It took strong and laborious efforts from the side of the NGOs to get this point across, but in the end, even the hardest diehards in the room had to admit that an important contribution to saving the world's genetic heritage comes from farmers and gardeners all over the world and from the NGOs working with them. In numerous paragraphs, the consensus report stresses the importance of these activities and calls for a serious involvement of the informal sector in national, regional and international decision-making bodies. It notes with concern that no formal recognition of and reward system for this important role of the informal sector, exists.

After another long and chewy discussion, the Dialogue group managed to also come up with proposals for institutional structures and implementation mechanisms to strengthen current efforts in the conservation of plant genetic resources. The objective of such structures is to promote political and policy oversight, mobilisation and distribution of funds, and implementation of well-defined tasks. The proposed structure includes an Intergovernmental Council for policy oversight and control, an Executive Board for implementation, an Advisory Committee to support both the Council and the Board, and a PGR Trust Fund to make it all financially possible. While in the proposal the control remains with [...] governments on a one-country-one-vote basis, the governmental representatives benefit from the presence and contributions of the "broader PGR community", including NGOs, in several of the proposed bodies. The Dialogue participants started to analyse how much extra money would be needed and could be realistically spent at the different levels (community to international) to save the world's plant germplasm and concluded that it would be in the order of $US 300 million a year.

Many of the proposals were logically geared to land on the table of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Brazil, June 1992) which has biological diversity high on its agenda. As reported in earlier Seedlings, this important meeting is expected to endorse a Convention on Biodiversity, and the Dialogue participants hope that plant genetic resources will be an important element of it. The Initiative is seen as a concrete contribution to this aim.

Among the largest chapters in the final report is the one on ownership and intellectual property rights (IPRs). A quick glance at the text shows how difficult it was to get consensus on this controversial issue, and the report is full of typical UN-like statements such as: "while some feel that...", "others were of the opinion that..." A smaller working group that met twice before the plenary session, basically consisting of industry and NGOs, went at length into the various arguments and alternatives and tried to go through the Plant Breeders ' Rights system to agree whether parts of it could be useful for developing countries and the informal sector. There was even an attempt to devise an intellectual property rights system for local materials held by communities, which was finally scrapped as unrealistic and impractical.

In the end, the feeling in the room and in the resulting report was that the possibilities for consensus in this area were explored and exhausted to the maximum and many of the divergent positions remained. Still, the group reiterated its strong concern that GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) might include genetic resources into its IPR agreements without any consideration of the possible implications. It also agreed that IPRs extended to genetic resources could have a negative impact on the grassroots efforts in conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources at the local level.

In an effort to reach consensus amongst conflicting interests, such as this Keystone Dialogue, many issues and concerns remain unraised. The question of Farmers ' Rights and how to make them operational, for example, was hardly dealt with. Still, the "Global Initiative" is a remarkable and potentially very useful proposal, considering the vastly different and important people behind it. The proposal deserves full consideration not only by the negotiators in the UNCED process during the coming year, but by any policy maker that has a say in genetic resources management -- and far beyond the 1992 process.

For a free copy of the report of the Oslo final plenary on plant genetic resources, please contact: Mr. Michael Lesnick, The Keystone Center, Box 606, Keystone, CO 84035, USA. Tel: (1-303) 468.58.22. Fax: (1-303) 262.01.52.

Author: GRAIN