Will Australia sign global treaty on crop genetic resources? by Maria Taylor

Paddy Fields

In November 2001 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAD) adopted the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty sets in place an international framework for access to plant genetic resources and establishes a method of benefit sharing with the countries of origin of the genetic material.

National governments, including Australia, are now undertaking due processes that will lead to ratification of the Treaty.

Australia signed the Treaty in 2001. But, as the Federal Government considers ratification, there are federal/state issues emerging from this country's particular system of storing plant genetic resources - now a state function.

The GRDC invited long-time Treaty advocate and negotiator Cary Fowler to Australia to address the terms and value of the Treaty. Ground Cover caught up with him at the CSIRO Discovery Centre in Canberra. He was joined there by consultant Don Marshal, formerly Professor of Plant Breeding at Sydney University, who explained the Australian situation.

A HISTORY of 22 years of controversy and debate followed by seven years of formal negotiations might have made a cynic of a lesser man. But University of Norway professor, author and expert on international agriculture, Cary Fowler, appeared remarkably chipper and optimistic on his recent Australian tour to talk about the pending International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA).

What's it all about? According to Professor Fowler, who negotiated on behalf of the 16 Future Harvest Centers (see box), this treaty is the other bookend of two international laws that will govern scientific and agricultural access to plant germplasm across the globe. The treaty already on the books is the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The food and agricultural plant treaty is awaiting ratification by 40 countries to become international law, and observers predict this will happen within the next 18 months.

The timing could hardly be better, against a background of dramatic global decline in access and exchange of plant genetic resources. There are a host of reasons why - from political unrest and natural disasters in countries rich in genetic resources, to political and economic charges of 'bio-piracy' against developed countries, including Australia, and multinational corporations.

Professor Fowler was here to raise awareness of the Treaty and the issues that Australia must address in relation to the obligations that the Treaty will create. Either way, we will be abiding by a new international framework for collection and transfer of plant genetic material for 35 major crops. In fact, Australia should have considerable interest in the regulation of international plant exchanges, given the significant amount of overseas cereal and pulse-breeding germplasm that underpins the grain industry as we know it.

Sharing the $$ benefits too

The other main element of the new treaty is a provision for so-called 'benefit sharing'. As Professor Fowler explained (and as some people might say is only fair), when traded plant material is developed into an agricultural product and patented, the patent being the trigger, royalties will have to be paid.

They will go into an international fund to be administered by the Treaty's Governing Body to support PGRFA activities in poor developing countries. How exactly the fund operates will be established by the Governing Body.

'Country of origin' means where the plant material is found in a natural biological system or where it has been bred to develop its distinctive properties.

Much of the politics erupted as countries decided they might be sitting on 'genetic goldmines'. This explains also the incomplete list of crops covered by the treaty. Notable exceptions include soybean "which China steadfastly refused to be part of the system", most fruits, berries and many vegetables, and major industrial and non-food crops including cotton.

"The European region proposed a list of nearly 300 crops, including some that most delegates had never heard of, and a few that are more 'weed' than 'crop'. The African region countered with a list of six crops," said Professor Fowler.

Ironing all that out took a few more years. As Professor Fowler knows all too well, treaties are made through political, not scientific, processes. The result is international law that is imperfect and still confusing or ambiguous in parts.

Crops now covered include wheat, barley, rice, maize, sorghum, rye, chickpeas, other peas and beans and the brassicas, various legumes and grass forages (for more details, see the web site www.fao.org/ag/cgrfa/itpgr.htm). But Professor Fowler said there are still exclusions of certain species related to crops on the list. The main exclusions are wild relatives of maize and cassava, which are important globally but of limited interest to Australian breeders.

What are the issues for Australia in debating ratification?

On the plus side, the Treaty should offer considerable benefits to Australian commercial breeding enterprises, with greater access and stability to resources under standard agreed terms. A lot of time and effort now spent in bilateral negotiations would be a thing of the past.

According to Don Marshall, the negative noise relates to a Catch-22 in determining state/federal responsibility for obligations under the Treaty. Obligations include some financial inputs both to the Governing Body and for managing Australia's own collections of plant genetic resources.

Professor Marshall said the network of Genetic Resource Centres, which are managed by the states, would have considerable difficulty meeting these obligations from existing resources.

"Since the mid-1980s the centres have struggled for support and have ouly survived through industry, mainly GRDC, support."

In terms of the Treaty, says Professor Marshall, if the Commonwealth ratifies the Treaty without an explicit commitment from the state governments, it can commit only the small number of accessions held by Commonwealth agencies.

He surmises that, as things stand, there may be little incentive for the states to come to the party when much of the extra cost is to meet international obligations, with benefits that may appear to be some years away.

A positive approach would be for all parties to agree: first to developing a coordinated and well-functioning national set of germplasm collections, followed by a unified approach to ratifying the Treaty.

Future Harvest Center collections

IN THE plant genetic resource treaty negotiations, Cary Fowler represented the 16 'Future Harvest Centers', which are supported by the non-profit Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The centres have greatly benefited Australian breeding through their cereal and legume germplasm collections - for example, the semi-dwarf wheat-breeding stock obtained from CIMMYT.

The centres hold approximately 600,000 accessions - which is roughly 10 per cent of the worldwide total in collections. However, their value to world agriculture is immensely greater, due to their independent status, public accessibility, their diversity of material including wild relatives and 'landraces' (traditional crop lines) and their comprehensive coverage of the most important staple crops.

Professor Fowler said, under the new treaty, CGIAR centres will continue to distribute plant genetic resources of crops in line with the rules of the Treaty, including crops covered by the Treaty and those that are not. And the centres will be able to access materials on the same terms as any country that has ratified the Treaty. The Treaty also encourages countries to voluntarily provide the centres with important research and breeding material.

"One might hope that this will bring to a close unproductive discussions (including repatriation of germplasm to donor countries) concerning the status and ownership of these collections. It is clear that their international and public status has now been confirmed in international law."

The continuing health and viability of these international centres are also a primary focus of the Global Conservation Trust, a $260 million worldwide financial lifeline to protect collections of crop plant germplasm. The GRDC and the Federal Government are contributing to the Trust and below we provide a more in-depth look at what is at stake.