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The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Genetic diversity in maize.
Source: CIMMYT
Following seven years of negotiations, ITPGRFA entered into force in June.
This represents a milestone in international efforts to conserve plant genetic resources.

Genetic diversity of food plants is the basis for food production throughout the world. But agricultural biodiversity is in sharp decline due to the effects of modernization, changes in diets and increasing population density. Today, only 150 crops feed most of the world's population, and just 12 crops provide 80 per cent of dietary energy from plants. Rice, wheat, maize, and potato alone provide 60 per cent, and often just a few modern varieties dominate (FAO 2004a).

Farmers in developing countries often cannot afford expensive external inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides or hybrid seeds. Plant genetic diversity of both wild and semi-domesticated food sources is therefore a crucially important part of their farming systems (Goote and Lefeber 2003). It allows them to select varieties adapted to local conditions such as drought or low nutrients, or crops that can serve as alternatives in times of scarcity (Koziell and McNeill 2002). It also provides the genetic storehouse for development of future food crops and varieties.

The ITPGRFA is a legally-binding instrument, aiming to ensure that plant genetic resources will be conserved, used for sustainable agriculture and food security, and that their benefits will be fairly distributed (Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 2004).

The following interest groups benefit from the treaty:

  • Consumers, because of a greater variety of foods and other agriculture products, as well as increased food security;
  • The scientific community, through access to the plant genetic resources crucial for research and plant breeding;
  • International Agricultural Research Centres, whose collections the treaty puts on a safe and long-term legal footing;
  • Public and private sectors, which are assured access to a wide range of genetic diversity for agricultural development;
  • Farmers and their communities, through the Farmers' Rights provisions. These rights include: intellectual property protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; the right to participate equitably in sharing benefits from the use of plant genetic resources; and the right to participate in making decisions, at national level, on the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources; and
  • The environment, and future generations, because the treaty will help conserve the genetic diversity necessary to face unpredictable environmental changes, and future human needs.

Parties to the treaty must guarantee access to genetic resources and share the commercial and other benefits arising from their use. They have the right to receive seeds of crop species covered by the treaty from public institutions in any other contracting country, free of charge and not subject to individual bilateral negotiation. This represents a significant step forward from the provisions in the CBD, which required plant breeders to negotiate on a bilateral basis with the country of origin.

Another key aspect of benefit sharing is that, in some cases, people who commercialize plants bred with material from the Multilateral System for Access and Benefit Sharing (set up under the treaty and covering 35 food crops and 29 forage crops) will be required to pay an equitable share of the monetary benefits to a trust fund. Proceeds from the fund will be used to help developing countries improve the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources (Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 2004).

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