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The Plant Treaty: Q&A with Crop Trust Director of Science, Luigi Guarino

Photo: Neil Palmer/CIATPhoto: Neil Palmer/CIAT

4 November 2019

This year the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture turns 15, and will celebrate this anniversary at the upcoming eighth session of the Governing Body (GB-8) from 11-16 November. Over 700 delegates and stakeholders are expected to come together to review the work of the last two years and make important decisions for the next two. Crop Trust's Director of Science, Luigi Guarino, sheds light on the work and importance of the Plant Treaty.

What is the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture?

The Plant Treaty, or Seed Treaty, as it is sometimes known, aims to improve global food security by making it easier for scientists and farmers to obtain and use seeds and other plant material for crop improvement, research, and training. It was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2001 after many years of negotiations and came into force in 2004. As of September 2018, there were 144 contracting parties – 143 countries, plus the European Union.

What do parties to the Treaty commit to?

Among other things, to sharing plant material of 64 globally important food and forage crops that is under the management and control of the national government and in the public domain, in accordance with agreed rules. These crops are listed in Annex 1 of the Treaty. The rules ensure requestors can obtain the material and that, where appropriate, they share a portion of any monetary benefits arising from their use of it. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but this is referred to as the “Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing”.

Which crops are included in Annex 1?

Lots of our favorites, like rice, wheat, maize, potato, oat, coconut, banana, millet, yam, carrot, strawberry, and so on.

Why doesn’t Annex 1 cover all food crops?

That’s because everything in the Treaty was the subject of intense international negotiations among countries. Sometimes, not all countries agreed to various crops being included, so some had to be left out, most notably groundnut (peanut) and soybean.

Why is it important to have a Multilateral System?

Breeders and researchers typically need material from many different sources to get as much crop diversity into their programs as possible. This gives them a better chance of developing new crop varieties that can eventually benefit farmers and consumers. Before the Treaty, they would have had to make separate, bilateral deals with different providers to get those different samples. All that takes time and money. Don’t forget: lawyers need their cut. To avoid these transaction costs as much as possible, the Treaty front-loaded the negotiations, with all parties agreeing to the rules from the outset. A system like this significantly speeds up the exchange of plant material, helping scientists and farmers make use of it more readily.

So can anyone, anywhere request plant material from a genebank?

Yes – if the provider is in one of the 144 contracting parties to the Plant Treaty. The requestor would need to sign something called a Standard Material Transfer Agreement, or SMTA. This ensures requestors abide by the rules set out in the Plant Treaty, including paying a portion of the monetary benefits arising from their use of that material.

Breeders and researchers typically need material from many different sources to get as much crop diversity into their programs as possible.

Where does that money go?

Into something called the Benefit-Sharing Fund, which is held by FAO on behalf of the parties to the Treaty. If, for example, you request wheat seeds from a genebank in the Multilateral System, create a new, high-yielding wheat variety, and sell this for a profit, you must pay a portion of that profit into the Benefit-Sharing Fund. The Treaty then invests this money in projects that support the improved management, conservation, and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture around the world. So, monetary benefits are shared through multilateral mechanisms as well as seeds. Understandably, there’s a lot of focus on money when people discuss the benefits of using genetic resources. But let’s remember that not all of the benefits can be counted in dollars and euros. After all, what’s the price of food security?

How many seeds have been exchanged under the Multilateral System?

The Treaty has facilitated the exchange of over 4 million samples of plant genetic material at an average rate of 1,000 transfers per day. That includes seeds as most people think of them, but also plantlets for crops that are best conserved as living tissue. The Multilateral System covers a global genepool of over 2.3 million samples of crop seeds stored in genebanks around the world.

Wow, that must have generated a lot of money for the BSF.

Well, the Fund has actually been receiving millions of dollars in voluntary contributions from a number of countries and others for several years, but in 2018 it received its first payment tied to use of plant material in the Multilateral System. A Dutch company used crop samples requested from genebanks in the Netherlands and Germany to develop ten new vegetable varieties. It paid USD119,083 into the Benefit-Sharing Fund, in accordance with the SMTA it signed when it requested the seeds. Hopefully this is the first of many contributions to the Benefit-Sharing Fund, as products incorporating material accessed over the years finally make their way to market – it can take a decade to release a new crop variety. To date, the Fund has supported over 60 projects in 55 developing countries, using USD 20 million in voluntary contributions.

Is it correct that Treaty negotiations are still going on?

Yes. A process has been launched under the Treaty to see if the Multilateral System can be revised to get more money in faster from commercial users, and also to potentially increase the scope of coverage of Annex 1 beyond the current list of 64 food and forage crops. Some want to expand the list of crops, while others want to do away with it altogether so that all food and forage crops are included. After all, we don’t know which plants might become important foods in the future, so why not make sure we can use all of them? Others think we shouldn’t do that until there is stronger evidence that the Multilateral System is working with the crops currently included. It is too early to tell how this process will end, but we hope it will make the Multilateral System even better!

What is the role of the Crop Trust in all this?

In order for the Multilateral System to work effectively, genebanks – which are key actors in it – need stable, long-term funding. They also need a backup – a separate location to conserve a copy of their crop collections, just to be safe. The Plant Treaty recognizes the Crop Trust as essential to this, by virtue of its endowment fund.

This fund – made up of donations from governments, and to a lesser extent, the private sector – accrues interest, which is then used to support genebanks around the world. In particular, the Crop Trust currently supports the international genebanks recognized under Article 15 of the Treaty, and the ultimate failsafe for the whole system, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Crop Trust’s shorter-term projects also further the aims of the Treaty, for example enhancing crop conservation at the national level through support to seed regeneration (growing plants in order to replenish or increase seed stocks for conservation), duplication of seeds so they can be safely backed up, and collecting of crop wild relatives. We’re all in this together.

What is Genesys and why is it important to the Plant Treaty?

Genesys is a free-to-use, publicly accessible, online database of plant material held in genebanks. It tells you what’s in the Multilateral System and includes a simple system for requestors to order samples. It supports the aims of the Plant Treaty by helping users find the plant material they need and streamlines requests to genebanks. When a requestor places an order via Genesys, it immediately alerts the relevant genebank, which ships the material to the requestor, subject to a signed SMTA. Since Genesys was launched in 2008 it has become the preferred tool for exploring genetic diversity worldwide. It is constantly expanding and currently contains data on almost 4 million plant samples. Genesys contributes to the Treaty’s Global Information System, which will cover not just material in genebanks, but also crop diversity conserved on farms and in the wild, and that’s in the process of being used by breeders to make new varieties. Genesys is supported by the Crop Trust.

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