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Improving cassava in Malawi
The new, legally-binding, International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation — which will be ratified by several countries at this week’s World Food Summit follow-up meeting in Rome — has been welcomed for its objective of equitable sharing in the benefits of plant genetic resources. But does it just expose ‘unprotected’ crops to exploitation?

The international seed treaty, as it is more commonly known, establishes a mechanism known as the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing. This system aims to facilitate access to plant genetic resources, to compensate farmers and local communities, and to help mobilise resources that contribute to food security and sustainable agricultural development.

At present, the Treaty is restricted to 35 food crops and 29 'forages' species (plants used for feeding animals), out of about 150 crops that are important to global food security and some 10,000 forages species of immense value to farmers for food and agriculture. The former group of crops make up part of the large ex situ collections held in centres belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and offer substantial advantage over crops that are excluded from the Multilateral System.

Four aspects of this arrangement deserve comment. Firstly, crops covered by the multilateral system will be made available to breeders and private companies only in exchange for royalties/compensation. This money will be used to conserve and develop plant genetic resources for sustainable agriculture in developing countries.

However, plant genetic resources outside the Treaty would not have restricted access, depriving farmers who have bred them over many years from any return on their efforts. This is at a time when these scarce but essential resources are under threat of extinction, and the need for their conservation and development poses major challenges to the world's agricultural and environmental communities.

Secondly, recipients of the protected genetic resources will be prevented from claiming intellectual property rights (IPR) — including their components — "in the form received".

This new type of IPR arrangement not only respects the contribution made by farming communities, but also provides an incentive to improve food and feed crops, which will stimulate business interest and investment in food and agro-based industry.

The threat, however, is that a handful of breeders and private companies could place legal claims on crops excluded from the multilateral system and held in the CGIAR centres, as well as being available both in situ and ex situ in different parts of the world.

Thirdly, access to crops covered by the multilateral system will only be allowed for research and breeding, and prohibited for application to chemical, pharmaceutical and other non-food industrial uses. Although this will prevent further misappropriation of genetic resources covered by the system it will, at the same time, open new opportunities for the private sector to exploit the potential of crops that are excluded from the system.

Finally, efforts will be made to improve the access to information and the transfer of technology for improved forms of crops/products covered under the multilateral system between developed and developing countries.

The treaty will therefore offer help in developing concessional and preferential terms and conditions of access to such resources, to smooth technology transfer to developing and least developed countries. This kind of mechanism is certainly urgently needed, and could be usefully extended to other plant genetic resources.

Given the above factors, the scope and coverage of the seed treaty should be revised to promote for the identification, collection, documentation and conservation of undescribed and unidentified plant genetic resources that are currently excluded from the multilateral system.

In addition, the Treaty should help to limit claims to legal rights on plant genetic resources in their natural form that are excluded from the multilateral system. For example, legally binding provisions on topics such as material transfer agreements and prior informed consent, which require breeders and private companies to disclose the geographical origin of material used in developing improved and new products, would promote the wider usage of all plant genetic resources, while at the same time reducing their unauthorised use and ‘biopiracy’.

Finally, the mandatory provisions of benefit-sharing to farming communities for the use of plant genetic resources should be extended. At a first glance, expansion of the multilateral system to all ex situ and in situ plant genera, landraces and wild relatives, might be seen to increase opportunities for breeders and private companies to obtain legal rights on the derivatives and/or products derived from these genetic resources.

Interestingly, however, this arrangement would actually prevent breeders and private companies from claiming exclusive legal rights on all naturally occurring plant genetic resources — as has already happened in cases such as Indian turmeric and basmati rice.

At the same time, this new form of intellectual property arrangement would ensure that the economic returns from legally protected derivatives and/or products would provide an equitable return to farming and local communities.

Therefore, while considering the ratification of the new international seed treaty, developing countries should be encouraged to demand special provisions to expand the coverage and scope of the Treaty along the lines proposed above, in order to improve food security and promote sustainable agricultural development.

© SciDev.Net 2002

The author is a fellow at the Indian National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), and is grateful to Rajesh Kochhar, director of NISTADS and Nita Dilawar for their continuous support and encouragement.

See also:

Text of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Commission on Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture
World Food Summit: Five Years Later

Photo credit: FAO