Shakeel Bhatti (second from left) is secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The International Treaty provides access to key plant breeding material. In this special feature, treaty secretary Shakeel Bhatti tells us why it’s so important.

Plant genetic resources are the foundation of plant breeding and a reservoir of genetic diversity. All the important work of breeders to develop new varieties that respond to today’s needs builds on plant genetic resources and the ability of breeders to access them.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Treaty) helps to conserve and provide facilitated access to key material we need to improve breeding pools and create new varieties, in a way that is customized for the needs of the agricultural sector. But conserving the biodiversity of plants cultivated for food and agriculture is not the same as protecting other plant and animal species given that crops have two main distinctive features: firstly, there is human intervention in their development, and secondly, they are important for our subsistence.

Crop biodiversity is represented by a unique genetic pool that grew over the millennia out of human intervention, as well as natural selection, with farmers mixing the genes of different varieties and even species to create new, more robust ones. Most of those varieties and species are kept from extinction by human interaction. In other words, when it comes to the genetic resources of plants used for food and agriculture, it really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’.

We have already lost a great deal. Over the millenniums, humans have relied in 10,000 plant species for food. So much of that diversity has now gone that there are currently just 150 crops under cultivation. Four of those crops – rice, wheat, maize and potatoes – provide around 60 per cent of our food needs.

One objective of the Treaty is to protect crop biodiversity for human development and its preamble calls for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for sustainable agriculture and food security. The importance it attaches to development is further emphasized by the fact that the Treaty has decided to adopt it as the theme for the seventh session of its Governing Body.

Many countries have now adopted the benefit-sharing concept through of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the CBD, which came into force in October 2014 as a way of encouraging countries to preserve biodiversity and to develop an economy that is more sustainable and in which the value of natural resources will be acknowledged.

Breeders’ associations at several occasions pointed out the need to address a number of concerns for breeders with regard to the national implementation of the Nagoya Protocol. They felt that a legal framework on access and benefit sharing should recognize and be adapted to the specificities of plant breeding, thereby avoiding unclear provisions on access and benefit-sharing leading to lack of legal certainty, excessive administrative burdens, or uncertainty regarding due diligence obligations of breeders under various compliance regimes.

Global Country Interdependency

Countries strongly depend on crops whose genetic diversity largely originates from outside their borders. Countries also need non-indigenous genetic resources in their production systems.

If we acknowledge variation across countries and across food supply and production metrics in the degree of dependence on foreign plant genetic resources, the results clearly demonstrate extensive interdependence worldwide, in all regions and on all continents, including in countries located in areas of high indigenous crop diversity. National dependence on non-indigenous crops has increased over the past 50 years as countries’ food systems have become more diverse and more homogeneous worldwide. Dependence is positively correlated with diversity in food systems and with national gross domestic product.

Diversity within a field or production system enhances stability in overall food production. Farmers can hedge their bets about the biotic and abiotic challenges of the coming growing season by planting several varieties. A farmer in Papua New Guinea, for example, can plant up to 50 varieties of sweet potatoes in a field.

Accelerating climate change makes it even more pressing to conserve, exchange, use and further develop ancestral crops to produce new varieties that are not only more productive but also more resistant to shocks such as droughts, floods, pests and diseases. In the future many parts of the world will need crops that can survive with less water.

The Need for Exchange Rules

Because of the dependency on genetic resources and the importance of such resources for breeding, research and food security, governments agreed on a common set of exchange rules and mechanisms and included them in a Treaty that took seven years of negotiations and was adopted by the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in November 2001. The Treaty, which is the only binding international agreement specifically dealing with the sustainable management of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, has its own governing body and rules that allow its 140 contracting parties to discuss policy and governance issues related to implementation.

Contracting parties vow to strengthen biological diversity research and plant breeding efforts to develop varieties that are particularly adapted to social, economic and ecological conditions, including in marginal areas; to broaden the genetic base of crops; and to increase the range of genetic diversity that is available to farmers. The Treaty calls for the expanded use of locally produced crops and the wider use of a diversity of varieties.

The Global Gene Pool

One of the early achievements of the Treaty was the setting up of a Multilateral System both to facilitate access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and to share, in a fair and equitable way, the benefits arising from the utilization of such resources on a complementary and mutually reinforcing basis.

Multilateral in this context means that a global pool of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are shared and managed jointly by all contracting parties to the Treaty. The Standard Material Transfer Agreement (sMTA), which has been multilaterally agreed upon as the standard private law contract to be used for the exchange of material from the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit Sharing (MLS), reconciles the global nature of plant genetic resources. For example, a user in France who wants to obtain plant genetic material from the MLS that is held in a seed bank in Brazil for an agricultural purpose can use the sMTA, rather than having to embark on lengthy negotiations of a case-specific new contract with Brazil. The Agreement also addresses the difference between raw and improved plant genetic material, including domesticated crops.

Although the Treaty covers all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, only 64 crops, which are listed in Annex I to the Treaty, were agreed by the contracting parties of the Treaty as subject to the Multilateral System. Accessions of those 64 crops are available for facilitated exchange when they are under the management and control of the contracting parties and in the public domain.

In an effort to further enhance the functioning of the Multilateral System, a Working Group was tasked by the Governing Body to draft a revision to the sMTA, focusing on developing a subscription system for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture contained in the Multilateral System, and to elaborate options for adapting the coverage of the Multilateral System based on different scenarios and income projections. The seed industry is actively participating in this important process through two representatives and by submitting a variety of written contributions.

‘Dematerialization’ and Increasing Seed Value

Characterizing genetic material at genotypic, phenotypic and accession level in order to identify new sources of genetic variation is very much needed to increase the options and inputs that breeders, researchers and farmers have to adapt our most important food crops under changing production conditions.

These needs are being addressed with increasing effectiveness by the convergence of ever more cost-effective, rapid and efficient characterization techniques at the genotypic, phenotypic and accession level of genetic resources on the one hand and the increasing computational capacities for processing and utilizing the resulting big data sets in modern plant science and breeding on the other. I have tried to describe the aggregate effects of some of these advances as the dematerialization’ of the use of genetic resources.

By this, I mean the increasing trend for the information and knowledge content of genetic material to be extracted, processed and exchanged in its own right, detached from the physical exchange of the plant genetic material: value is increasingly created at the level of the processing and use of such information and knowledge. The advances of plant genomics, in particular, have shifted the balance of value of material and knowledge.

Besides the accelerating speed of technological innovation which derives from these trends and needs to be reflected in relevant legal frameworks in order for plant breeding to advance with legal certainty, the challenges for the Treaty resulting from these trends include that breeding is no longer so focused on plant genetic material as raw materials. Only by also addressing the non-material values of genetic resources, for example through the Global Information System of the Treaty, can the Treaty continue to add value for breeders, scientist and farmers and remain a dynamic framework which facilitates and governs the ongoing innovative uses of plant genetic resources — also at the level of their epistemic value, i.e. their information and knowledge values, including characterization data, genomic data, traits and even environmental data.

The Treaty is already addressing the dematerialization of the use of genetic resources through the vision paper and ongoing implementation processes of its Global Information System; Genesys and Divseek, which the Treaty co-developed together with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and other partners; and the definition of new data standards which will make it easier for breeders and others to exchange, access and interpret such data.

The Treaty and FAO are thus helping the international community to identify new opportunities and the challenges in the dematerialization trends of genetic resource utilization, as they play an important custodianship role. Some of these opportunities and challenges are to increase and improve the existing partnerships between plant breeders, seed gene banks, curators, scientists, farmers and donors on one side and on the other to strengthen the global technical and policy framework for the big data that is being generated from the study of food and agricultural crops.

A great proportion of the accessions held in gene bank collections worldwide will soon be genetically characterized in detail, many by DNA sequencing and thus increasing seed value. Large projects on rice, maize and wheat are underway, and they will soon be followed by more specialised collections of other crops of major importance for food security.

The use of the new technologies may assist plant breeders to make breeding results more predictable and has the potential to shorten plant breeding. Genomics is a game changer and the increasing availability and easy access to modern DNA sequencing technologies puts high-density genotyping in the reach of almost everyone, everywhere. The near future will bring whole genome reference sequences for dozens of crop species and hundreds of varieties.

Also, to enable data sharing through the Global Information System of the Treaty (the GLIS), the issue of intellectual property rights of genomics data — and in particular whole genome DNA sequence data — of food crops must be addressed. PGRFA holders producing genomics data and, including DNA sequence data, from the material that is available in the global gene pool of the Treaty should be put in a position to make this information publicly available. A set of clear and transparent agreed rules may act as a powerful incentive for the sharing of added-value information in this domain.

In this context, the FAO and the international community are seeking to see that these scientific advances reach the maximum number of stakeholders, breeders, farmers and consumers. While the generation of seed sequences can be readily outsourced, capacity needs to be built for the generation and interpretation of the new data related to seeds.

Advances in genomics have the potential to enhance the scope and efficiency of plant breeding and FAO is acting as an honest broker in supporting countries to consider the impact of the technologies in the mechanisms designed to share the benefits derived from the use of the material.

The Treaty and the Nagoya Protocol

The text of the Treaty emphasizes the importance of working in collaboration with the CBD, a matter that has been on the agenda of all Governing Body sessions. The Nagoya Protocol and the Treaty are part of the international regime on access and benefit sharing, but the Treaty is specific to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and is liaising closely with the secretariat of the CBD on the interfaces with the Nagoya Protocol. Current activities are related to the identification of legal barriers that prevent data sharing and to possible incentives for users to contribute data.

Evolving Systems and Regulations

The Treaty is a cornerstone of the international architecture set up to respond to the urgent need to address the issue of biodiversity loss, which facilitates access to the wider global gene pool of plant genetic resources for research, training and breeding. The GLIS is creating connections to key information, including links to genotypic and phenotypic information.

As the international legal landscape for protecting agricultural biodiversity develops, the Treaty has a particular interest in working closely with the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol, as recognized by the Governing Body at its sixth session, during which some areas for improved collaboration were identified.

The Governing Body acknowledged the need for continued capacity-building support to contracting parties for the mutually supportive implementation of the Treaty, the CBD and its Nagoya Protocol. The secretary of the Treaty was asked to continue to explore, alongside the executive secretary of the Convention, practical means and activities to further enhance cooperation.

Consequently, in 2012 the executive secretary of the CBD, Braulio Diaz, and I launched a Joint Initiative for the Harmonious Implementation of the Convention and the International Treaty, which has since conducted a range of activities to facilitate a coherent implementation of access and benefit sharing, which takes into account the specificity of agricultural crops and special needs of plant breeding.

Practical Implications for Breeders

To conclude, the environment in which the International Treaty facilitates the sustainable use of plant genetic resources in plant breeding is rapidly changing: the entry into force of the Nagoya Protocol and an increasing dematerialization of the use of plant genetic resources bring significant changes in how plant breeding may be facilitated in the future. The Treaty is responding to these changes through the enhancement of its Multilateral System and the launch of its Global Information System.

An additional ramification of these changes is that plant breeding for major crops becomes more knowledge-intensive, and the use of intellectual property-protected breeding inputs — from patented traits to elite lines maintained as trade secrets with associated data — plays an increasingly important role in developing new varieties. One implication for breeders is that in the future they will need to address legal encumbrances to their breeding activity deriving from both the access and benefit sharing frameworks applicable to their genetic material and from the intellectual property titles applicable to their intangible breeding inputs.

As these regulatory frameworks intersect more and more, it will become increasingly efficient for breeders to deal with both types of legal encumbrances in an integrated manner when ensuring their freedom-to-operate and legal certainty for their breeding programmes. Seen from the perspective of such an integrated ABS and IPR perspective, the entry into force of the new ABS regime may therefore be not exclusively an operational constraint, but also a potentially enabling factor in a breeding environment where the relationships between a breeder and other breeders, gene banks, providers of genetic material, providers of traits and advanced characterization data are structured through multiple and overlapping sets of rights and obligations.

At company level, the evolution of an ever-more complex access and benefit sharing legal regime, that is increasingly intersecting with the practical use of existing intellectual property systems, will therefore likely require integrated solutions for dealing with the various facets of rights and obligations in plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in an efficient and comprehensive manner.

—Shakeel Bhatti is Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

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