GRAIN Controversy raised by the Bush administration's refusal to sign the Convention on Biodiversity at the Earth Summit in Rio filled headlines of daily papers throughout the world. Yet while all eyes were on Rio, the real connection with Washington was absent from the horizon: not the U.S. State Department but the World Bank, house of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The Biodiversity Convention, a small step forward for conservation is a large step backward for Third World control over the valuable international crop germplasm collections run by the CGIAR Centres in the name of the international community. Due to last minute pressure from the U.S. government, the Convention excludes these genebanks from its scope. At the same time, the CG donors, again under pressure from the Americans, are working on a policy to let the Centres patent those collections. GRAIN would like to thank Pat Mooney of RAFI for his contributions to this article. On the surface, it looked like the United States was just being the sore sport once again, jealously protecting its own self interest when sacrifices and commitments were on the diplomatic bargaining table. But the Americans ' refusal to sign the Convention on Biodiversity during the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro last month does little harm to the matter; in fact, had they signed, it might have been worse. For the Convention, largely manipulated by the Americans anyway during the final phase of preparations, is extremely weak and even counterproductive in several respects. For certain, the Convention has its merits. On the positive side, it does attempt to outline a basis for committed national action to conserve biological resources -- which are vital to development both in the North and the South -- in a framework of international cooperation. Also, the Biodiversity Convention firmly asserts that biological resources are subject to national sovereignty of the country where they are found and places the responsibilities on those countries to conserve them adequately. The Convention also makes a worthy attempt to specifically consider local communities, women and indigenous people as valid actors in the management of biological diversity, rather than just governments. After all, it was not bureaucrats or scientists but villagers, farmers, tribal groups, fisherfolk and herdspeople who developed, nurtured, preserved and utilised those resources since time immemorial. As well, the Biodiversity Convention tries to be bold in looking beyond just how to conserve the planet's biological treasure chest, and address the forces and activities that are depleting that resource base in the first place. But despite these modest -- and long fought over -- virtues, the scope and value of the Convention signed in Rio is disturbingly limited. There are two crucial shortcomings that undermine the effectiveness of the Convention. One is that a critical part of the world's biodiversity (that part of most immediate relevance to agriculture, including the North 's) is excluded from the Convention. The other is that it specifically leaves the door open for the patenting of genetic materials by the interest of industrialised countries, both the public and private sectors. What's left out... Of all the biological resources useful for long term development needs or environmental security, plants play a preponderant role. They are the basis of food security and production, contribute enormously to health care, provide shelter, clothing, utensils and fodder, and stabilise soils, water and our climate. While most governments and the world's media have focused on the likely extinction of panda bears, whales, tigers and seals, leading Northern industrial countries have been much more concerned with the collection and conservation of inconspicuous crop seeds. Ever since agriculture began 15,000 years ago, farmers have been breeding and passing down to future generations an enormous array of different plant varieties with specific qualities and uses. Most of this diversity was developed in the regions of the Third World, harbouring what we call centres of origin or of diversity of our crop plants. This incredible wealth of peoples ' varieties provides plant breeders the world over with the precious tools to continuously adapt crop to new pressures and needs. Yet, ever since the Green Revolution began 30 years ago, those traditional folk varieties have been massively replaced by modern "high-yielding" ones, causing genetic erosion of unprecedented proportions. As the "gene-poor" North realised that they were losing the very resource base their agriculture was dependent upon, they set to work collecting seeds from the South and storing them in genebanks. Genebanks are basically large refrigerators in which seeds are kept cold to survive long-term storage. The great majority of the plant genetic resources currently conserved in these genebanks are either located in the industrialised world or in the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), under the auspices of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The CGIAR, an informal group of donor countries, is conveniently located in the World Bank and effectively controlled by the North. What happened to the seeds of our crops, also took place with important micro-organisms and animals: • At least half of all Third World collected crop seeds is already in Northern genebanks. The United States holds about 27% of the genetic material needed to maintain and increase agricultural productivity. European genebanks hold about 35% of world's stored genetic diversity of food and forage crops. • Eighty-six percent of global microbial collections are held in the North and the United States controls the largest share. • Eighty-five percent of global livestock fetal populations in storage are held by the North. The U.S.A, once again, dominates. All these strategic crop, animal and microbial collections will not fall under the scope of the Biodiversity Convention. In Nairobi last 22 May, pressure from the U.S. government forced the negotiators putting the final points and commas on the draft Convention to exclude from its purview all such institutionally stored ex situ (off site) collections established prior to the new agreement. This way, no national genebank or international collection falls under the scope of the Convention. Inclusion in the treaty would have forced industrialised countries to share the benefits derived from these seeds with the countries from where they were collected. International responsibility for these seeds might have also adversely affected the commercial interests of the North's private seed companies. One might ask what is the importance of these collections. It is almost beyond imagination. Many of the crops we now regularly grow in the North, could not be grown here if it were not for the regular "injection" of fresh genes from the countries where these crops originally came from. Australian authorities, for example, have privately valued the contribution of wheat seed from the genebank at the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo (CIMMYT, an IARC in Mexico) to Australian agriculture at U.S.$122 million per year. Even New Zealand's modest wheat industry has gained well over $5 million from seeds collected from developing countries. Italy, for its part, calculates that over 60% of its acreage sown to durum wheat -- the pasta crop -- is cultivated with CIMMYT-derived varieties representing a current value-added to Italian farmers of U.S.$300 million per year. But the big winner and prime mover behind the Nairobi exclusion on 22 May was the United States. One-fifth of the American wheat crop is dependent upon IARC seeds. The value of Third World contribution to U.S.A wheat farmers in any given year is not less than U.S.$500 million. What is true for wheat, also goes for other crops. Another IARC, the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), provides U.S. farmers with more than $120 million of income derived from rice genetic resources every year and the Colombian-based IARC working with beans, Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), claims that its contribution to U.S. agriculture is worth at least $60 million per annum. In sum, American farmers receive for these three crops alone the value of U.S.$ 680 million from Third World farmers. By keeping these Northern-controlled and strategically valuable collections outside the framework of the Convention, the industrialised countries are keeping them free from new rules like national sovereignty of the governments which donated them to the North in the first place or preferential treatment for Third World countries of origin of these materials. And while the Convention clearly holds that Contracting Parties should not restrict access to genetic resources, this will not apply to vital national or international genebanks. Thus, the most valuable and commercially interesting collections of biological resources existing in controlled environments today are not bound to the rules of the Biodiversity Convention. ...so that it can be patented! This significant manoeuvre, concocted and pressed by the U.S. government, parallels a complimentary initiative, taken on the very same day and also forced by the Americans. While Biodiversity negotiators capitulated in Nairobi to the exclusion of genebanks under the Convention, the CGIAR donors were wrestling in Istanbul with U.S. pressure to allow for the materials in those genebanks to be patented. The CG donor meeting in Istanbul adopted what is entitled a "working document" on genetic resources and intellectual property rights but which reads as a clear statement of intent to patent the international genebank seed collections. This could have profound implications for international agricultural development. The IARC genebanks house at least 20% of all crop germplasm currently in storage for breeding and research the world over, and perhaps up to 40% of all original, unduplicated material. According to the CGIAR, these seeds were collected in the name of the international community and are being held "in trust" for humanity. Yet there is no legal footing to back these polite assurances. Thus, the very same day that the Nairobi negotiators gave in to U.S. pressure to leave the IARC genebanks out of the Biodiversity Convention, the CG donors adopted in Istanbul a document which opens the door to patenting everything in those genebanks. In the meanwhile, patent offices in the U.S. and Europe are already starting to grant patents on genes with promising commercial potential. The Biodiversity Convention does not contain anything to prevent them from doing so. On the contrary, industrialised countries managed at the last minute to get explicit recognition of the patent system and other forms of intellectual property rights related to biodiversity in the global treaty. The U.S. rejection of the Biodiversity Convention should be seen in this light. The main point for the North is not so much conservation of genetic diversity per se. In their (short-minded) view, there is not really a need for an international convention to conserve biodiversity important for agriculture. The CGIAR system works well enough under their control to preserve those resources which are vital to meet the need of industrialised agriculture. The "real" problem for the North is assuring access to those resources. They need every guarantee that the South will not restrict the availability of the vital materials coming from the fields and forests of the centres of diversity in the Third World. The Biodiversity Convention puts some conditions on this, to the Americans ' dismay. In the meanwhile, the North needs to be able to ensure that their universities and companies can enjoy the profits from research on this material, which is why they want Third World governments and the CGIAR to adopt patent laws on life forms. The U.S. vote against the Convention is merely a vote in favour of assuring their own free access to valuable agricultural and pharmaceutical resources originating in the Third World.