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An international seed treaty that gives legal force to the conservation of the world's major agricultural seeds is due to come in to force on 29 June.

The 90-day countdown to the implementation of the treaty was triggered this week when 12 European countries and the European Community ratified the agreement.

Known as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the treaty is intended to ensure that plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, which are vital for human survival, are conserved and sustainably used, and that benefits from their use are equitably and fairly distributed.

"This is a legally binding treaty that will be crucial for the sustainability of agriculture," says director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf.

Since the beginning of agriculture, around 10,000 species have been used to produce food and fodder. But today just 150 crops feed most humans and just 12 crops provide 80 per cent of food energy. Scientists are concerned that this lack of genetic variability makes the world's agriculture increasingly vulnerable to diseases, changes in climate and other factors.

The Intermediate Technology Development Group, a nongovernmental organisation that aims to advocate the sustainable use of technology to reduce poverty in developing nations, welcomed the treaty's legal recognition.

But in a statement the organisation warns that the treaty "will be just a piece of paper if it is not backed by substantial funds from the rich world to support conservation of seeds — not just in seed banks but in farmers' fields where they could be continuously developed".

It also calls for patents on seeds to be banned, saying that "while it is the intention of the treaty to keep agricultural seeds in the public domain, the article that legislates for this is ambiguous".