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Emile Frison says the future of sustainable agriculture depends on countries agreeing on how to share genetic resources.

In 1999 scientists identified a virulent new strain of black stem rust disease on wheat in Uganda. In 2001 it slashed Kenyan harvests by more than two-thirds. If this strain, called UG99, spreads to the rest of the world — "only a matter of time," according to an expert panel — it could destroy 60 million tonnes of wheat a year, or ten per cent of the global harvest, worth about US$9 billion annually (see Global effort aims to tackle deadly wheat fungus).

This week (12–16 June) representatives of more than 100 countries gather in Madrid, Spain, for the first meeting of the governing body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The two are intimately linked because any durable resistance to UG99 will be found in the genes of a variety of wheat or its relatives, and the international treaty's governing body has the chance to make it much easier for farmers and scientists to obtain the raw material they need to secure the future of agriculture, not just from UG99 but from all the other diseases and challenges that threaten food security around the world.

The international treaty addresses a predicament that arose from the climate of distrust, engendered largely by patenting, that surrounded the negotiation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD established the idea that countries could exercise sovereign rights over their genetic resources. Before, it had been assumed that genetic resources were the common heritage of humanity.

According to the CBD, the use of these resources should be regulated by contracts between the owner of the resources and those who wished to use them. For drug companies, who can isolate a single active compound from a plant and calculate the profits reasonably easily, that made sense.

But farming is not like pharmacology. Hundreds of varieties from scores of countries can go into the pedigree of a single modern variety. Agreements are costly and hard to monitor and no plant breeder, public or private, could afford to enter into all the bilateral agreements to use the diversity needed.

The International Treaty cuts through the tangle by establishing a multilateral system for access and benefit sharing. Each country that signs up gains easier access to agricultural plant genetic resources from all the other signatories and a special fund will distribute cash benefits for conservation, especially in developing countries.

There remains, however, one sticking point: the Material Transfer Agreement. This sets out the terms of use for a sample of plant genetic resources, including provisions that ensure recipients cannot restrict further availability and the details of cash payments if a recipient commercialises a variety that makes use of the material.

The agreement is crucial to the working of the treaty, and yet the governing body still has not settled on a final text. Some countries seem to be taking a tough line to keep down the level of payments and the conditions that would trigger them. Others may be looking for the kind of profits they see associated with blockbuster drugs. What is needed is a gesture of trust, to repair the atmosphere of suspicion that has developed over the past couple of decades.

Free exchange of genetic resources is in fact the greatest single benefit of the treaty. Countries depend on one another for their food security to an astonishing and largely unappreciated degree. If the delegates to the meeting sit down to a typically Spanish dish of paella, will they realise that the rice comes originally from southeast Asia, the onions and garlic from central Asia, the saffron from Greece, the peppers, the tomatoes and the chillies in the chorizo from South America?

They may know that the last big epidemic of stem rust in the United States, in the 1950s, destroyed 70 per cent of the wheat harvest. Do they also know that an ancient relative of modern bread wheat, originally found in the Soviet Union, supplied the genes that continue to protect the crop today?

Agriculture is an arms race. Farmers and scientists improve their crops and methods to protect them against pests and diseases; the pests and diseases respond by evolving new ways to exploit unforeseen vulnerabilities. UG99 is just one manifestation of this process, in which the disease once again has the upper hand. There are many, many others.

Solutions, especially for the poorer farmers of developing countries who cannot afford chemical protection, will come from existing crop varieties, but to make use of those resources farmers and scientists need ready access. The international treaty will provide that access, but only if the governing body adopts a workable Material Transfer Agreement that once again opens up the global flow of crop diversity.

This is far more than an arcane technical consideration; it is no less than the future of food security and sustainable agriculture.

Emile Frison is director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome, Italy.

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