The Global Plan of Action

by GRAIN | 25 May 1996

The Global Plan of Action For the Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation

of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

May 1996



This is a discussion paper GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International) is circulating to facilitate the analysis of and the formulation of NGO strategies vis-à-vis the FAO Plan of Action on genetic resources, and the Leipzig Conference. It first gives some background to the overall negotiation process and then briefly highlights what, according to us, are the good and the bad elements in it. It then continues with some comments on the state of governmental negotiations on the Plan, gives some considerations for NGO strategies, and ends with a number of suggested lobby priorities for NGOs present at Leipzig.

We conclude that there is a serious risk that the few good elements which the Plan does contain will not survive the negotiation process before and during Leipzig, and recommend that NGOs should agree on the critical elements that need to be in the Plan for it to be of any use and without which it would become counterproductive. We also stress that governments should agree on a clear, transparent and democratic procedure for any implementation of the Plan, a process in which farmers organisations and NGOs should have a substantial voice, and that the industrialised countries should agree that the required funding will be provided. Finally, and most importantly, we propose that NGOs push for a strong commitment by all governments to take Farmers' Rights - currently largely absent from the Plan - seriously and restate this commitment in Leipzig. Any Plan of Action which is not built on the rights of farming communities to the genetic resources they developed, will end up being useless or even dangerous.


(Note: this assessment is based on the Plan of Action as it was discussed by governments in Rome in April (CGRFA-EX2/96/3). At the time of writing the Plan was being updated to reflect these April discussions. Early June a governmental pre-Leipzig working group will have another go at it, and could make substantial changes. For this reason, this briefing does not pretend to give a detailed assessment, but rather provides a general overview of the contents of the Plan, and the context in which it is being discussed.



The FAO Global Plan of Action (GPA) originates from discussions in the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources in the early 1990s. This Commission had been the scene of fierce North-South battles on the control over plant germplasm during most of the 1980s. At that time, NGOs and developing countries pushed for intergovernmental control over that germplasm, against the further privatisation by multinational companies of it through intellectual property rights, and for Farmers' Rights to acknowledge the role local farming communities play in the conservation and use of genetic resources. They took this battle to the FAO, as it was the only intergovernmental institution with capacity to deal with such issues. Several battles were won, some were lost. Despite strong opposition from the North, developing countries got an intergovernmental platform (the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources) to deal with plant genetic resources, they got the International Undertaking (a voluntary agreement on the conservation and use of plant germplasm) that questioned privatisation, and they got the concept of Farmers' Rights adopted. However, at the same time industrialised countries started to patent genetic resources; successfully blocked any serious implementation of Farmers' Rights and any new funding mechanism; and started to employ genetic engineering on a commercial scale which further concentrated control over genetic resources in the hands of few.

By the beginning of the 1990s, several countries and NGO's (from North and South) argued for the need for a clear picture on the state of the world's agricultural genetic resources and for a prioritised plan, backed by substantial funding, to address the conservation and utilisation of agricultural biodiversity. The Commission, and later the FAO Conference, decided to hold a high level International Technical Conference to discuss and adopt such a State of the World Report and Plan of Action. This is the Conference that will be held in Leipzig in June. Through concerted NGO lobbying the FAO agreed to encourage NGO participation at all levels of the process, recognising their important role in agricultural biodiversity management.

In a parallel and perhaps a more important process, the FAO Commission started to re-negotiate the ten year old Undertaking in order to bring it in line with the newly adopted and legally binding Biodiversity Convention. Here the two most important issues on the table are the conditions of access to crop genetic resources, and the implementation of Farmers' Rights. These are extremely important -- and still wide open -- negotiations, as the outcome could either swing to an agreement that allows developing countries and farming communities to better control and protect their crop biodiversity, or to a situation where countries with strong breeding and biotech industries impose their rules of the game and push for further privatisation and monopolisation of that same diversity. Progress in these negotiations has been very slow up to now. In December 1996, and in the first half of 1997, the Commission will meet again on these issues. NGOs such as GRAIN have been arguing from the beginning that ultimately, the re-negotiated Undertaking should be adopted as a legally binding protocol to the Biodiversity Convention.

Although the development of the Plan of Action and the re-negotiation of the Undertaking are separate and parallel processes, they are politically strongly interlinked. The new Undertaking is supposed to provide the overall rules of the game with respect to the exchange of agricultural genetic resources and to the rights to those resources, while the Plan should become the operational arm for practical action. A Plan of Action without an agreement on the rules of the game would turn it into a paper plan without any weight.

The preparatory process

After a process that took several years, now a draft State of the World Report and Plan of Action have been drawn up by the FAO secretariat and are ready for discussion. Both the Report and the Plan are the culmination of work involving 12 regional and sub-regional 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. The idea was that governments would be involved in the formulation of the Plan from the very beginning, in order to ensure commitment and follow up. If successful, the Plan should develop a framework, set the direction, and mobilise support for concerted action to conserve agricultural genetic diversity. The call for wide social and institutional participation from the NGOs involved, was to ensure that there would be enough significant elements contained in the plan to have at least a minimum of agreed controls to secure biodiversity and keep it in the hands of the local communities.

Obviously, it would have been entirely unrealistic to expect that the Global Plan of Action would reflect an ecologically sound and socially just world-view, or fully promote an alternative to current industrial agriculture. As an agency, the FAO is hardly known for its progressive attitude to sustainable agriculture. As a governmental negotiating forum, it is just like any other UN political platform at which all interests are present. The question is whether the Plan, and the political process of which it is part, provide for enough practical elements and political space that people working at national and local levels can use successfully back home in their countries to defend them against dominating interests.

What's The Structure?

The Plan, as drawn up by the FAO Secretariat, on the basis of the preparatory process and the input from the different countries, consists of 20 "priority activities", divided in 4 "priority activity areas". The areas are:

1) In situ conservation and development;

2) Ex situ conservation;

3) Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources; and

4) Institutions and capacity building.

Each of the proposed activities comes with a problem statement, objectives, and activities required in the area of policy, research, capacity building and co-ordination. The Plan also comes with preliminary cost estimates for each priority activity. The overall estimates range from 130.6 million (basic/minimum) to 303.8 million (ideal/comprehensive). However, the financing of the Plan and its follow up, is still not secured, with the developing countries calling for substantial and new funding, and the North not wanting to commit anything at this point. Financing will be discussed once again in Leipzig.

What's Good In It?

Perhaps the most positive element of the Plan is that it exists and contains some important and useful elements. Until now, the conservation and use of agricultural genetic resources has been uncoordinated and largely driven by the interests of industrialised countries and their plant breeding industries. This has resulted in a situation where the most important stored germplasm in the world is in the genebanks under the control of the North, and stored far away from local farming communities. A Plan of Action, which can be discussed and decided upon on a one-country-one-vote basis, is a good thing to have, as long as it has enough basic elements to counter the current biases in plant genetic resources management.

Overall the Global Plan of Action is a remarkable document considering that it originates from a UN body which traditionally has been largely supportive of industrial agriculture. As expected, the Plan does not fundamentally question industrial agriculture as the main force behind the destruction of biodiversity, and therefore many of the proposals it contains are weak and full of contradictions. However there are valid assessments of the current needs in plant genetic resources conservation and use, as well as several good policy statements and proposals for actions to safeguard agricultural biodiversity. For the first time it is officially recognised that there are problems with the current genebank system: genetic erosion in the genebanks is high, seeds are not being regenerated, materials are not being used, and data on the stored seeds are lacking or incomplete. Measures are proposed to address these problems.

The Plan also recognises that to date attention has been biased towards the ex-situ genebank approach and against in-situ and on-farm methodologies. It proposes increased attention for these methodologies and calls for a new partnership between the formal and informal sectors. There is a very welcome section focusing on the restoration of traditional seed supply systems after disaster situations in which farmers lost their seed supply. The importance of wild foods and forest products for local livelihood systems and the role of indigenous peoples in the management of living resources in protected areas, are highlighted and supported.

In the section on utilisation, FAO makes a timid start in recognising the need for diversification of agriculture, and the broadening of the genetic base of our food crops. Although clearly falling short of questioning the very base of industrial agriculture, the Plan does contain some proposals to promote higher levels of diversity in the farmers' fields, to monitor genetic vulnerability in crops, and to promote under-utilised crops and local-level seed production. Also, still very timidly, it asks for a review of legislation and regulation which has an impact on genetic diversity, as well as of land-tenure policies which have a negative impact.

All these are important, new and encouraging developments. It shows a first attempt from the official genebank sector to break out of its isolation by incorporating alternative methodologies, recognise more actors, and link with sustainable development efforts.

What's Bad In It?

The State of the World Report acknowledges that the main cause of destruction of genetic diversity lies in current mainstream agriculture. However, the Plan does not reflect this. By not recognising the cause of the problem, it does not set itself squarely on a coherent path of recuperation and protection. It therefore contains many contradictions and has a very technocratic approach to solving problems.

Although the Plan contains some interesting proposals for on-farm conservation methodologies as mentioned earlier, it does not make provisions for giving control of seeds and agricultural diversity back to farmers and local communities. This is an absolute and basic requirement. It is necessary not only as a way of improving on-farm approaches to conservation but essential for the ongoing development of sustainable agricultural production systems.

Rather than drawing bold conclusions from the State of the World Report and putting the entire global genetic resources system on a desperately needed new footing, the Plan in general amounts to a large extent to 'business as usual'. Most of the budgeted money will be used to rationalise and upgrade the ex-situ collections of genebanks and improve access to them by plant breeders.

If one considers that ex-situ conservation of genetic resources is a complementary method to save seeds - which at GRAIN we do - then clearly money is needed to rationalise the genebank sector. The Plan proposes activities to streamline the current genebank system world-wide, to rescue those collections that are currently dying, to carry out additional collecting, and to carry out better evaluation and characterisation of the stored materials. However the Plan misses the critical point that ex-situ conservation should be effectively linked to local level activities. The main thrust is still that ex-situ collections are for use by official plant breeders -- public and private -- and not by farmers or NGOs working with them.

This becomes very clear if one looks at the principal actors identified to carry out the Plan. The CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research; the institutions behind the Green Revolution) keeps appearing as the leader in virtually every activity. Farming communities and their organisations are given a much more marginal role. Several developing countries' governments have already complained about the emphasis on the CGIAR rather than on their national programs. If the Plan is to be acceptable to all parties, this bias has to change: more efforts are needed to strengthen the work at the national and local levels.

An alarming shortcoming of the Plan is that it fails to link with the wider policy issues relating to the role of the private sector, the WTO trade regulations, the push for Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), and the general trend toward increasing privatisation of genetic resources. Unless these linkages are made, and their impact assessed and addressed, much of the proposed action in the plan will be ineffective. The proposed activities to diversify agriculture are meaningless if at the same time trade agreements force a further homogenisation of that same agriculture world-wide. Equally, it is nice to recognise the role of farming communities at the local level, but if one allows at the same time IPR laws to extend to their biodiversity, these communities will be further marginalised, their resources devastated and their knowledge pirated.

Another problem with the Plan is that it does not relate to other negotiations, particularly the revision of the International Undertaking. The Plan assumes that a relatively free access regime will be agreed upon. It refers only once in a while to Farmers' Rights, and presents certain activities as helping to recognise these rights, but there is no comprehensive understanding of what these rights entail, and how they can be supported. If a strong concept of Farmers' Rights had been the departure point, then the Plan of Action would have been less biased towards the formal sector, and more supportive of farmers and their organisations. It is important that the links between the Plan and the re-negotiation of the Undertaking and the Biodiversity Convention are strengthened.

Finally, the lack of clear proposals on the follow-up, financing and control of the Plan is a serious problem. This already caused a major row at the first intergovernmental discussions on the Plan, this April in Rome. Unless industrialised countries are willing to put money on the table and agree to a transparent and democratic process for the organisation, follow up and implementation of, the Global Plan of Action, it will come to nothing.

The April Commission Meeting

The first time the draft plan was discussed by governments was during the April meeting of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, held in Rome. This meeting was characterised by a lot of position-taking and some arm-twisting. The delegates began by working on the Plan chapter by chapter. Led by the USA and Canada, the industrialised countries started proposing to eliminate or undermine many of the better parts of the GPA. Also, Brazil introduced language downplaying Farmers' Rights, and proposing to delete all references to the role of indigenous peoples. Halfway through the first reading of the GPA, a number of controversial issues emerged: first, the question of whether to include forestry (which was solved by excluding it for the moment), and later the question of the financing of the plan. The G-77 insisted that a clear signal of political will was needed to indicate that the GPA will be financed. This controversy kept the meeting busy for the rest of the week, which meant that a more detailed discussion of the contents of the GPA was postponed to Leipzig. Written amendments on the rest of the Plan were submitted, and it was agreed that an inter-governmental working group would meet prior to Leipzig to work further on its contents and to find consensus on the Plan as a whole.

There is a real danger that the working group meeting prior to Leipzig, and the Leipzig meeting itself, will eliminate a lot of the more interesting proposals in the Plan of Action, and strengthen those elements that are already biased to industrial interests. On the one hand the Plan is being torpedoed by the USA, Canada and the UK on anything useful relating to on-farm and in-situ conservation and on everything which even timidly proposes mechanisms to correct the free market. On the other hand there is the Latin American governments block, led by Brazil, which proposes to take out references to the need for assessing the impact of legislation and land tenure policies on genetic diversity. Latin American governments also wish to avoid national commitments to monitor and prevent genetic uniformity. Both groups aim to eliminate the already minimum references to the important role of indigenous peoples.

NGO strategies: lobby for improvement or start again?

It is clear that for most NGO's this Plan of Action does not live up to what is really needed. GRAIN believes that the Plan should be heavily criticised for its shortcomings, biases, and for those proposals that favour the interests of private industry. However, considering the origin of the Plan (the FAO, hardly known for its progressive attitudes to sustainable agriculture), and the times we live in (dominated by free trade interests) it contains a remarkable amount of good language and useful elements, which is worth defending. If we manage to maintain and improve those elements, the Plan could become one of the tools which can be used at the national and local levels to fight for people-led strategies to save and use biodiversity in agriculture. However, the Plan could also become counterproductive, if its good elements are further undermined and undressed in the negotiations, and if its biases to the industry are strengthened.

The plan developed through a process of involving countries from the very beginning in its formulation. Virtually every government in the world submitted reports for it, and/or participated in regional and sub-regional meetings about it. While there were inevitable shortcomings in the process, the fact is that the countries had to recognise and evaluate to some degree, the state of their programs, define their priorities, and clarify their needs. This generated a momentum - both nationally and internationally - which is important to maintain.

But perhaps even more important than the contents of the Plan, and the process through which it was developed, is to judge it in the overall political context in which it is being discussed. Some points to consider are:

* If the current political momentum leading up to Leipzig is lost, it is very unlikely that the opportunity to have any multilaterally agreed and co-ordinated approach to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity will be possible in the near future. This plays into the hands of those within and outside FAO who are in favour of the status quo, and against a high profile and special treatment for agricultural biodiversity. It would also play in the hands of the World Bank, which intends to become a lead agency in agriculture, and has already several times tried to increase its control over plant genetic resources. As mentioned earlier, the status quo means that the Northern and industrial interests will continue their predatory behaviour uncontrolled. Southern diversity-rich countries will continue to be pushed into bilateral agreements with transnational companies, which are in fact increasingly trying to bypass democratic checks and balances to strike deals directly with the more vulnerable communities.

* If the Leipzig Conference is derailed, the negotiations for both a multilateral agreement for agricultural biodiversity and the rights of farmers within that agreement will also suffer. This would undermine the possibilities of achieving a protocol on agricultural biodiversity under the Convention on Biodiversity, and leave agricultural diversity to be dealt with mostly through bilateral approaches, with absolutely no protection for farmers.

* The Plan as it now stands implicitly (but timidly) acknowledges that the "free market" cannot solve the problems of agricultural biodiversity, and that in many cases it is the cause. This is very different from the type of language which is evident in the preparatory document for the Plan of Action to be adopted at the World Food Summit later this year, which looks as if it had been written by free trade promoters. If a reasonable Plan of Action is adopted in Leipzig, it could help to act as a counter point to what is happening at the World Food Summit, at which agriculture is at risk of being defined merely in terms of trade interests. It could also be used to counter some of the most harmful elements in the GATT agreements.

Strategies for Leipzig

The NGO's involved in this process are primarily committed to protect and regenerate agricultural biodiversity by keeping it in the hands of local communities to continue to use, protect and develop. Clearly, different NGOs working at different levels can, do and should each have their own strategies and approaches. We do not necessarily need to all speak with the same voice in Leipzig, and can have different positions. Sometimes that is even more effective than acting as one. But in Leipzig the NGO's should try to agree on critical elements which need to be in the Plan for it to be of any use, be ready to evaluate at what point Plant might become counter-productive, and what to do then. At the same time we should discuss the Plan in the overall political context as outlined above. We would offer the following ideas for lobby priorities at the national level now, and later in Leipzig:

==> It is important to lobby for the strengthening of the good proposals in the Plan and the weakening of the bad parts. Earlier in this paper we highlighted the aspects which, in our opinion, are worthwhile defending and the elements that we think should be taken out. After the discussions last April in Rome, many of the good elements ended up in square brackets meaning that they are up for discussion. Unless they are defended, they will be thrown out. There is a risk that, due to the pressure for some political success in Leipzig, the contents will be further weakened in the working group meeting prior to the Leipzig conference and at the meeting itself.

==> Perhaps even more important than the contents of the Plan at this stage, is agreement on a clear, transparent and democratic process for the implementation and follow-up of the Plan. The Plan is supposed to be "rolling" which means that it can be continuously updated in the future. This makes who controls this process crucial. There is a risk that control over the follow up will rest mostly with those who put up the money, and implementation given to the CGIAR and other institutions from which local communities can expect little. NGOs should argue for a substantial place at the table in the implementation process, and a voice in defining future priorities and proposals.

==> The industrialised countries have to agree that this Plan needs additional and substantial financing, and that they are ready to pay for it. One cannot expect developing countries to commit themselves to pretentious and expensive activities in the Plan, without having a clear indication who will pay. Financing procedures should also be clear and transparent, to avoid donor preferences and pressures in the implementation of the Plan.

==> It is of fundamental importance that a clear link be established between the Plan of Action, and the re-negotiation of the Undertaking. In practice, the Plan will be operationalised through Undertaking which will establish the rules of the games with respect to access to agricultural biodiversity and the rights of farming communities. The Plan will be meaningless without an agreement on the rules of the game. The rights of farmers and local communities are largely absent from the Plan, and will be negotiated within the Undertaking. Therefore, NGOs should lobby to strengthen the discussion on Farmers Rights in Leipzig and in relation to the Plan, and push for political commitment to take these rights, and the re-negotiation of the Undertaking seriously. Any Plan of Action which is not built on the rights of farming communities to the genetic resources they developed, will end up being useless or even dangerous. In the end, all these processes should lead to a protocol on agricultural biodiversity under the Convention on Biodiversity.

Author: GRAIN