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Years of deadlock between developed and developing nations on seed sharing have been broken with an agreement to set up a fund to help poor farmers preserve the world's biodiversity.

The fund was agreed during a week-long meeting of the 2004 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture's governing body in Tunis, Tunisia, this month (1–5 June).

The treaty aims to establish a global gene pool to conserve and protect genetic variety in food crops — variety that is being lost as breeding companies flood the market with small numbers of highly selected seeds.

Some developing nation-signatories to the treaty had been loathe to share their seeds for fear that they would receive no benefits.

All treaty signatories have access to others' seed banks on the condition that if a product results from seed sharing the owners will pay 1.1 per cent of the product sales into the treaty's benefit-sharing fund to support conservation of genetic material in developing countries.

But breeding a new plant variety can take ten years or more and developing countries wanted to see rewards for their custodianship of crop varieties sooner — hence the new fund.

"The topic of gene materials has been very conflictive in the last 40 years. We believe that member states have seen in the treaty and in its benefit-trading structure a solution that works," says Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of the governing body of the treaty.

"It is the first time that the 121 member countries have officially agreed on the importance of strengthening the treaty's work and at the same time committed to having an active role in the fund- raising activities that will now follow to gather the foreseen US$116 million," he adds.

The US$116 million fund represents an estimate, based on previous activities, of the budget needed by the treaty to support crop conservation programmes in developing countries for the next five years. The money will come from fundraising activities by the treaty secretariat and richer countries — though contributions are not mandatory.

The treaty is becoming a model for the sharing of other genetic resources, says Bhatti, such as influenza viruses for vaccine production.

Bert Visser, plant geneticist and director of the Centre for Genetic Resources at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, told SciDev.Net that developing country farmers should be supported in their efforts to preserve and use traditional varieties.

Melaku Worede, founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, is less optimistic about the fund, telling Science, "Anything voluntary is like dew on a leaf: it can fall down at any time. The contributions should be binding."