Agricultural genetic resources are crucial for human civilization. The major beneficiaries of the advances in crop production in the present century based on these resources are consumers in all countries, North and South, and the benefits are huge. Once said, this may be obvious. But several of the most informative and interesting recent books on genetic resources do not contain terms such as price, productivity or food consumption in their indices. The major benefit of genetic resources is surprisingly absent from the discussion.

Despite the high total value of agricultural germplasm, any attempts to earn rents, akin to those on mineral deposits, from continued supply of agricultural germplasm to breeders will likely fail. Breeders of major crops are not highly dependent on flows of new germplasm into their breeding stock. Indeed the narrowness of the genetic base of crops like hybrid corn and soybeans in the United States is remarkable, given their continuing yield advances.

Unfortunately, there is a real danger that efforts to capture these meagre rents from the flow of new germplasm to breeders will severely compromise a worldwide breeding enterprise that has enjoyed historically unprecedented success in increasing food supplies to the benefit of all consumers. This worldwide enterprise relies on an intensive exchange of germplasm, mostly enhanced materials and released cultivars. (Each year 650,000 accessions are distributed by the CGIAR centres, of which 500,000 are 'improved material'.) Care must be taken that this exchange is not damaged too severely by taxes, fees or, worse still, individualized prior approval requirements. If it is, consumers everywhere will lose, and any possible gains to holders of rights to germplasm will be paltry by comparison.

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