The Treaty is of vital importance to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) and ultimately for food security. Its importance lies in the fact that it allows for the continued flow of the PGRFA most critical to the world’s food security and for which countries are most interdependent. The Treaty also provides a comprehensive framework for the conservation and sustainable use of all PGRFA.
The Treaty, which took over seven years to be negotiated within the framework of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, is designed to be in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention, which came into force in 1993, deals generally with all aspects of the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s genetic resources. The Treaty, however, is designed to be responsive to the special nature and needs of PGRFA. What then are these characteristics that call for special treatment through the new Treaty?
Firstly, PGRFA of cultivated crops, on which humans depend for food and survival, are a form of biodiversity that is a product of human activity and that, for the most part, cannot exist without continued human intervention. Over the millennia, farmers have domesticated wild plants and, through a process of selection and breeding, made them suitable for modern agriculture. This has been done by breeding out natural traits, such as seed dormancy or shattering of seed-heads prior to maturity, that allow those plants to survive in the wild. It has also been done by breeding in new traits such as higher yields and drought or disease resistance.
Secondly, PGRFA have, for centuries, been freely and widely exchanged across the world’s continents and regions. Potatoes originated in the Andes mountains of Latin America; barley and wheat were first domesticated in the Near East; rice originated in South-East Asia. All of these crops are now staples cultivated throughout the world. The exchange of PGRFA has continued over the ages, and almost all countries in the world are now heavily interdependent on PGRFA from other parts of the world for their agricultural economies.
Finally, continued access to PGRFA is essential to preserve the world’s food security. Farmers and breeders depend on PGRFA as building blocks for the improvement of their crops in order to sustain production in the face of threats. On many occasions, breeders have had to go back to the centres of origin and diversity of crops in order to find natural resistance to disease or other environmental challenges. Potato blight caused by Phytophthera infestans that resulted in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s is a prime example. Natural resistance to the disease had to be sought in the centre of origin of the potato in South America, in order to save Europe’s potato harvests. A more recent example is taro leaf blight, which threatened one of the staple food crops of Samoa. Samoa had to look to Palau and the Philippines to find blight resistant stock.
The Convention on Biological Diversity took great steps forward in protecting the world’s biodiversity and ensuring equitable regimes of access and benefit-sharing. However, on its own it was not able to respond fully to the special situation of PGRFA. In particular, the increasing tendency seen towards the end of the 20th Century towards negotiating access to genetic resources on a case-by-case bilateral basis, with consequent high transaction costs, threatened to stifle the continued exchange of the PGRFA on which agricultural development depends.
Moreover, the CBD does not cover ex situ collections, such as those held by the CGIAR Centres, that were acquired before it came into force. Hence the need for a new Treaty, within which terms for access and benefit-sharing for the PGRFA most important for food security could be mutually agreed on a multilateral basis. Both FAO and the Conference of Parties to the CBD have welcomed the Treaty as providing a special solution for PGRFA that is responsive to the needs of farmers, breeders and sustainable agriculture in general.