Enhancing the Plant Treaty’s Multilateral System

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    CGIAR Initiative on Genebanks
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The International Plant Treaty provides a framework for plant genetic resources for agriculture (PGRFA) to cross borders safely and efficiently. This gives farmers options in a changing climate and helps researchers and breeders to innovate.

But there needs to be a balance between providing access to plant materials and sharing benefits from their use with the communities who developed them. Delegates from around the world met recently at the FAO for a Working Group to look at how to improve the system and how to adapt it as new technologies emerge.

The Plant Treaty was originally designed to govern the sharing of plant resources in physical form – e.g. seeds, roots, tubers and plantlets. While imperfect, this system functioned well as the resources’ movement could be clearly documented.

Scientists are now able to share much of the genetic information they need in digital form – Digital Sequence Information (DSI). This brings many advantages for the conservation, evaluation and use of plant resources in breeding programs, but it makes it harder to ensure that the benefits derived from their use are shared fairly.

“The message from CGIAR was clear: Benefit-sharing in the era of DSI can only be fair and equitable if it delinks payment obligations from the incorporation of specific DNA sequences into final products.”

IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin report

CGIAR is supporting the Plant Treaty community in its efforts to address this challenge. At the Working Group meeting, Ruaraidh Sackville-Hamilton (currently working with the CGIAR Genebank Initiative) gave a presentation to negotiators on how CGIAR Centers generate, deposit, share and use DSI.

He suggested that a benefit-sharing system for these digital resources cannot simply replicate the approach taken for physical resources. That’s partly because it is usually not possible to establish a link between the data used in valuable upstream research and the genetic materials that are used in the final stages of commercial product development. Furthermore, once the genetic basis of a desirable trait is identified, scientists can potentially use DSI to locate alternative unregulated sources of the same trait from outside the multilateral system.

In the subsequent discussions, regional groups agreed to consider introducing a subscription system for users of plant material governed by the Plant Treaty. That would mean that rather than paying on a case-by-case basis – the so-called ‘single access system’ used now – users would pay up-front for access to all material. Another option is to have a system that combines the two approaches.

Delegates also agreed in principle that they should continue to consider benefit sharing solutions for DSI as part of the negotiations. One option would be to increase subscription fees to reflect the added value of access to DSI.

Another important issue discussed at the meeting was expanding the list of crops covered by the Treaty’s Multilateral System. This list, known as Annex 1, currently contains 35 crops and 29 forages considered particularly important for global food security. But as Colin Khoury (San Diego Botanic Garden) noted in his presentation (download), hundreds of different crops are widely grown, traded and eaten around the world.

Bringing all crops under the Multilateral System would provide a clearer legal basis on which to share plant materials enabling more research into many crops that are understudied yet potentially of huge importance for diverse, sustainable food systems.  That includes several underused crops that are conserved in CGIAR genebanks, such as Andean roots and tubers (CIP), African Yam Bean (IITA) and small millets (ICRISAT).

Instead of trying to draft a new longer list of crops to replace Annex 1, the Working Group concluded (again, in principle) that all PGRFA should be covered by the system but that member states should be able to propose exemptions’ for providing access to some crops within their borders, for example on cultural or strategic grounds.

These negotiations take place on the basis that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. There are many more details to be ironed out, but this meeting made significant progress on some complex, sensitive topics. CGIAR will continue to participate actively in the process.

Explore our library of resources about DSI

Read about CGIAR’s participation in the Plant Treaty’s 10th Governing Body meeting.

Header photo
by IISD/ENB | Anastasia Rodopoulou





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