U.S. joins plant genetic resources treaty

by Holly Demaree
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FAO_ US joins genetics treaty
Extension agents and farmers in the western U.S. examine a wheat field.
Photo courtesy of the FAO.
 
ROME, ITALY —The U.S. is the newest member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, an instrument that works to strengthen global food security by promoting the conservation, sharing, and sustainable use of agricultural plant genetic resources.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva and Thomas M. Duffy, Chargé d'Affaires ad interim of the U.S. Embassy to Rome, marked the entry into force of the treaty for the U.S. during a ceremony at the UN food agency's Rome headquarters on March 13.

"We welcome the membership of the United States of America and we hope that as new countries join the International Treaty, the increased exchange of material and the flow of benefits resulting from their use will translate in more support to local farmers in developing countries who conserve seeds and other planting material," said Graziano da Silva. "Biodiversity can help us face the impacts of climate change. We need to ensure that farmers have access to seeds, and to promote and support breeding programs in different regions to find the best way to adapt. That is what FAO's Seed Treaty is all about."

The U.S. officially deposited its certificate of adherence to the treaty with FAO three months ago, triggering a three-month countdown to its entry into force for the country.

Five other countries — Argentina, Bolivia, Guyana, Tuvalu and Chile — also recently became active contracting parties to the treaty. And Antigua and Barbuda have also deposited their certificates of adherence and so are poised to become so by mid-2017.

The treaty's centerpiece is its "Multilateral System" that facilitates access to a globe-spanning collection of plant genetic resources, exclusively for use in research, breeding and training efforts — and which includes measures to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of any financial benefits that result.

The Multilateral System currently applies to 64 food, feed and grazing crops maintained by International Agricultural Research Centers or under the management and control of national governments and in the public domain. Those who access the materials must be from the Treaty's ratifying nations and must agree to use the materials only for research, breeding and training purposes.

The world's largest collection of plant genetic material, the Multilateral System prior to the U.S. joining already covered over 1.5 million crop "accessions" — samples of plants, seeds, or crop varieties or populations held in gene banks or maintained by breeding programs, the FAO said. The system has since 2007 transferred 3.2 million of these accessions for research and breeding efforts.

The U.S. holds some of the largest public and best-documented crop gene bank collections in the world, with more than 576,600 documented crop accessions to its name. These will now become much more widely available under the treaty's Multilateral System.

Access to the genetic material available in the global genepool is critical to work by researchers and agronomists to develop new crop varieties with higher nutritional values, that are more resistant to pests, diseases and environmental stresses, and which give improved yields.

Indeed, much of the crop yield increases achieved in recent decades is attributable to improved and new seed varieties developed through research and breeding programs.

According to the FAO, the treaty prevents anyone accessing genetic resources under the Multilateral System from claiming intellectual property rights over those resources in the form in which they received them, and ensures that access to resources already protected by international property rights is consistent with international law.

And under the treaty's Benefit Sharing Fund, those who commercialize plants bred with material from the Multilateral System pay a share of their returns into a trust fund that is used to support efforts to help developing countries improve the conservation and sustainable use of their plant genetic resources.

To date, the treaty has disbursed almost $20 million through the fund to help 1 million farmers stay ahead of climate change through 61 projects in over 55 developing nations, the FAO said.  More than 220 civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, universities, gene banks, national and international research institutions, rural community groups and producers' organizations have been involved in executing these projects.
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