Esquinas Alczar

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy

Plant genetic resources (PGRs) for food and agriculture are as essential to human life on earth as air and water, and, therefore, have an enormous value as the basis for agricultural production and food security. PGRs are both the building blocks of living matter and the raw material for the fast-growing plant breeding and biotechnology industries. They are and will remain the principal source of genes and gene sequences for conventional and biotechnology-based plant improvement in the foreseeable future. However, there has been a growing concern over recent decades that many of these resources might now be lost at a rapidly increasing rate, as fewer homogenous modern varieties are adopted.

The existing portfolio of PGRs was developed throughout the world, over thousands of years of agriculture, by selection and adaptation to differing and changing conditions. This diversity is one of humanity's greatest capital resources for sustainably increasing food production, adapting to changing agro-ecological conditions and meeting future market demands. However, while the use value of these resources is clear (as the main basis for food production gains in the present century), the failure of markets to attribute sufficient exchange value to them is one of the major factors behind their accelerating loss. Although these resources are a capital asset for both present and future generations, their price is fixed only as a function of the demand of the present generation. To maintain an optimal portfolio of these resources over the longer term, the challenge is to find means to internalize conservation costs within the production costs.

The raw material of the plant breeder originally comes from the fields of the small farmer. Much of the plant genetic diversity still actively used is maintained and continuously selected by small farmers, co-evolving with pathogen complexes and adapting to changing environmental conditions and human needs.

Their landraces may not be as productive, under optimal conditions, as the modern homogenous varieties of formal plant breeders, but they are, and will continue to be, the very basis of future productivity gains. PGRs are now subject to sovereign rights. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) reconfirmed this and specified that they are under the sovereignty of the government of the state in which they 'developed their distinctive properties'.

The future extension of intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes, without an equitable sharing of the benefits with the donors of germplasm, could result in the erection of formidable barriers to access to genetic resources. Restrictions on access, as a result of the failure to provide adequate value-appropriation and redistribution regimes, could have the perverse effect of reducing the overall flow of innovation and improvement in agriculture.

While in some countries plant breeders appropriate value through plant breeders' rights or patents on plant varieties, there is no parallel appropriation mechanism to act as an incentive for the providers of germplasm to continue to maintain and make available these resources. Many countries have questioned the fairness and equity of providing for legal proprietary rights over modern plant varieties while not providing any rights to the holders of the resources from which they are developed. Moreover, unless a share of the benefits reaches farmers and national institutions maintaining (whether in situ or ex situ) and developing landraces, they will have no incentive to continue to maintain and develop them.

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