Supporting international efforts to pool and conserve crop genetic resources in times of radical legal change

Supporting international efforts to pool and conserve crop genetic resources in times of radical legal change

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the editors of Intellectual Property Rights, published by Oxford University Press, said that it is urgent that the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is fully implemented.

“It is urgent to fully implement the international 'quasi-commons' prescribed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture”. That is one of the final recommendations from the editors, including Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, of a recent book published by Oxford University Press on Intellectual Property Rights – Legal and Economic Challenges for Development.

In making this conclusion, Stiglitz and co-authors endorse the analysis of Michael Halewood, policy scientist from Bioversity International, in his chapter ‘International efforts to pool and conserve crop genetic resources in times of radical legal change’. Halewood examines the challenges encountered by the international community over the last 40 years in its efforts to develop systems to ensure that plant genetic resources are conserved, pooled, and shared in ways that promote food security.  In particular, he focuses in on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Plant Treaty), highlighting its potential to overcome historical tensions that have undermined international coordination efforts.

Since the beginnings of agriculture, crops have moved around the world, driven (or followed by) imperialist expansion, colonialism, international trade, aid, agricultural research and changing food consumptions patterns and demands. Wheat and barley from Mesopotamia reached North Africa, and then Europe and Asia; in the XVI century beans, tomatoes, peanuts, potatoes, sunflower, maize and many other crops migrated from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Asia. This historical movement and use has led to a situation where all countries are interdependent on each other as sources of genetic resources linked to their own food security. This interdependence is increasing as a result of climate change – as climate patterns change, people need to access crops that suit their new circumstances.

The Plant Treaty is an international agreement designed to facilitate cooperation between national governments, genebanks, researchers, plant breeders, development agencies and farmers to conserve, add value to and exchange plant genetic resources and equitably share benefits associated with their use. Through the Plant Treaty's multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing, contracting parties agree to virtually pool a subset of the genetic resources of 64 crops and forages to be used for “utilisation and conservation for research, breeding and training for food and agriculture”. Commercial users that incorporated genetic resources from the system in new products are required to pay a percentage of gross sales to an international benefit-sharing fund (if they simultaneously restrict others from using the same products for research and breeding).

The Plant Treaty came into force in 2004, and currently has 132 member states. During the last meeting of the Plant Treaty’s governing body, in 2013, the member states decided to launch an intergovernmental process to revise the multilateral system, to increase the flow of money to the international benefit-sharing fund, and to increase the amount of plant genetic resources that can be accessed through the system. So far there have been two meetings wherein delegates have considered policy options. A third meeting will be held in Brazil in the first half of 2015.

As the negotiation process moves forward in the new year, we hope that the negotiators will be encouraged by the fact that Nobel laureates have joined among the ranks of farmers, breeders and agricultural researcher and development organizations to recognize the importance of the Plant Treaty, and the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing in particular.


Bioversity International conducts participatory research with national partners to investigate options for implementing the Plant Treaty in mutually supportive ways with the Convention on Biological Diversity and Nagoya Protocol. We also conduct research concerning institutional and policy supports for sustainable use of genetic resources, farmers’ rights, integrated seed systems, and equitable management of common pool resources. 

This research is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets.

Read two technical papers developed by Bioversity International for the last formal session of the working group to enhance the functioning of the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing:

Facilitator’s Summary: Informal Stakeholder Workshop on Multilateral System of the ITPGRFA

Non-monetary benefit sharing mechanisms within the projects funded by the Benefit Sharing Fund

This story is part of the 2014 Annual Report