CGIAR promotes capacity building and benefit sharing at the Plant Treaty’s 10th Governing Body Session

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    Simon Wells
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The International Plant Treaty governs how plant materials for agriculture are exchanged between countries. Every two years, policymakers, researchers and farmers gather to discuss how to make the Treaty function effectively and fairly.

At the latest such event, the Governing Body’s 10th Session, CGIAR representatives helped shape discussions on benefit sharing from the use of Digital Sequence Information (DSI) and gathered feedback from national partners to refine CGIAR’s capacity building offer.

CGIAR genebanks manage a large proportion of the collections of global crops that are subject to the Plant Treaty. Since 2007, 89% of distributions of plant genetic resources made under the Treaty were sent out by CGIAR genebanks and breeding programs. The seeds and other plant material in the genebanks do not belong to CGIAR but are held ‘in trust’ on behalf of the international community.

CGIAR’s role is to ensure the materials are in the best possible condition and are easily accessible to those who need them. The Plant Treaty provides the legal and policy framework to make this possible. It is constantly evolving to respond to the emergence of new technologies and to ensure that it is helping farmers grow diverse, nourishing and resilient crops.

Strengthening the Multilateral System

One of the core functions of the Plant Treaty is to oversee the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit Sharing. This establishes rules on how plant material is exchanged and how benefits derived from their use should be shared.

An important theme of this meeting was to find ways to ensure that seed companies pay more into the system when they profit from material that they receive through the multilateral system.  In the formal ‘plenary’ session of the meeting, CGIAR made three proposals to improve the system:

  • Increase monetary benefit sharing, without creating disincentives for commercial users to develop new crop varieties.
  • Promote more non-monetary benefit sharing, such as training and technology transfer.
  • Expand the list of crops that are covered by the Multilateral System (known as Annex 1 crops).
Michael Halewood, CGIAR Initiative on Genebanks. Photo by IISD/ENB | Matthew TenBruggencate.

CGIAR representatives also recommended that new rules for benefit sharing from the use of Digital Sequence Information (DSI) could be built into the existing multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing for physical plant material. DSI is genomic information, like DNA and RNA, that can be used to characterise plant material and identify traits like drought tolerance that are valuable to breeders and farmers. To help guide discussions on this complex issue, CGIAR has made available a library of presentations and papers on DSI.

Sharing CGIAR’s capacity and expertise

Over 400 scientists work in CGIAR’s network of 11 genebanks. They have deep expertise on topics ranging from core operations to advanced techniques like cryopreservation and multispectral imaging. Sharing that expertise is a central part of CGIAR’s work and the Governing Body meeting was a chance to make national partners aware of CGIAR’s offer and to learn more about their requirements.

Several countries – including Togo, Niger, Lebanon and Uruguay – made statements welcoming CGIAR’s capacity sharing work.

At the end of the meeting, the 151 countries that make up the Governing Body unanimously adopted a resolution that “Welcomes and acknowledges the technical assistance … undertaken by the CGIAR Centers in order to reduce the existing gap on capacity regarding generation, access to and use of DSI/GSD and recommends that this work be continued and strengthened.”

The CGIAR delegation also met with all of the regional groups to discuss training needs and co-hosted with the Crop Trust a side event on capacity sharing.

To make this work even more effective, it will be important for the Plant Treaty Governing Body to develop a capacity building strategy and action plan based on feedback from countries and other stakeholders. This will need to include a specific strategy for DSI and will help ensure that training is coordinated and targeted.

Sonja Vermeulen, Managing Director for Genetic Innovation, CGIAR at the Opening Session. Photo by IISD/ENB | Matthew TenBruggencate.
Supporting farmers’ rights

The Plant Treaty calls for the protection of farmers’ traditional knowledge, a stronger role for them in policymaking and for them to share in the benefits from the use of plant resources they helped to develop. CGIAR strongly supports this approach. CGIAR Centres are required to report on activities to promote farmers’ rights and working with farmers is an important element of CGIAR’s internal training for scientists.

At the Governing Body meeting, CGIAR and others acknowledged that more needed to be done to involve farmers in agricultural research and development, and to ensure they can take advantage of the Multilateral System to access useful materials and information.

As part of its effort to address this issue, the CGIAR Genebanks Initiative and civil society organisations hosted a webinar in September 2023 on improving farmers’ access to genebank materials. This will hopefully be the first of many such events, guided by insight from the Plant Treaty Secretariat on how organisations like CGIAR can best engage with farmers around the world.

Securing funding to conserve and use crop diversity

In her speech at the Opening Session of the Governing Body meeting, Dr Sonja Vermeulen announced that the CGIAR System Council has renewed its commitment to guarantee annual funding for the core functions of CGIAR’s genebanks, including for ICRISAT now that it has joined CGIAR’s unified governance.

Alwin Kopše, Switzerland, incoming Chairperson of GB 11 and Kuldeep Singh, Head of ICRISAT genebank. Photo by IISD/ENB | Matthew TenBruggencate.

This funding should not be taken for granted. It is only possible thanks to the generous support of donors – including Germany, the UK, Australia, the Republic of Korea and India – all of whom designated funds in their contributions to CGIAR specifically to the genebanks. Another important source of funding is the Crop Trust which contributes around a quarter of the costs of the CGIAR genebanks’ essential operations and 16% of the CGIAR Genebank Initiative’s annual costs.

It will continue to cost millions of dollars per year to maintain CGIAR’s collections to international standards and to make disease-free materials available to users around the world. It is particularly expensive to maintain clonal crops like bananas, cassava and potatoes since these cannot be kept and shared as seed. These materials cannot be held in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault so building support for the Global Plant Cryopreservation Initiative will be important if we are to develop a robust back-up system for these vital crops.

The CGIAR stand in the FAO Atrium featured a cryopreservation tank and ‘in vitro’ plantlets.
Next steps

The next meeting of the Governing Body will take place in 2025. Until then, CGIAR will participate actively in:

  • the working group on how to strengthen the Multilateral System;
  • the working group on how to govern DSI so that it continues to be available for research and development, and benefits derived from those uses are equitably shared;
  • the expert group on farmers’ rights working on an assessment of the extent of farmers’ rights implementation; and
  • the Ad Hoc Technical Committee on Conservation and Sustainable Use (ACSU) of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which will be overseeing the development of Voluntary Guidelines for the Implementation of Plant Treaty Articles 5 (regarding conservation) and 6 (regarding sustainable use).

The CGIAR Initiative on Genebanks will also follow up with regional groups and the Plant Treaty Secretariat to develop the next round of capacity sharing projects and activities.



Header photo credit: Shawn Landersz/Crop Trust

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