Seed World

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources Smolders

A look at how the International Treaty impacts working companies.

It’s not up in smoke and ashes just yet, but the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is smoldering as the governing body failed to come together late last year on a compromise to enhance the Multilateral System of access- and benefit-sharing.

Despite this outcome, companies still need to access germplasm for breeding efforts, and the International Seed Federation (ISF) says the ITPGRFA remains the preferred tool for access- and benefit-sharing of genetic resources for plant breeders.

“The benefit of the plant treaty is that countries already agree on the language and contractual terms; it just requires signatures by the accessing party and the country from where the material originates,” explains Hélène Khan Niazi, ISF international agricultural manager.

For six years, the point of contention that’s been up for debate is how access- and benefit-sharing should work, as well as bring more money to the Benefit Sharing Fund of the Treaty for actions of agricultural development in developing countries.

The seed sector, which is not a negotiating party, brought the users point of view. In the end, there was almost an agreement for two ways to access and share the benefits: either by becoming a subscriber to the system and paying an annual fee based on the company’s turnover, or a payment per accession once a product is put on the market, at a higher fee.

However, parties have not been able to reach an agreement on these new conditions of access- and benefit-sharing, especially on the treatment of digital sequence information. One of the hot points at stake is the access- and benefit-sharing of genetic sequence data. Many countries including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan do not believe digital sequencing information should be included as part of the access- and benefit-sharing regulations. However, others, especially developing countries, have a different point of view.

In short, the problem remained that the framework was not realistic in the business environment.

“The idea behind the International Treaty (IT) and the Multilateral System for access- and benefit-sharing is very good, but the implementation is very bad,” shares José Ré of RiceTec Ag.

Ré says that RiceTec has basically avoided using the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) and stopped accessing material from the International Rice Research Institute, better known as IRRI, and others that have valuable genetic materials.

“Since the IT went into force, we’ve been greatly restricted in the material we can access from our point,” Ré says. “The IT just doesn’t make business sense, and we can’t compromise our germplasm and breeding efforts — that’s our business. It also really impacts the way we track and document our breeding efforts.”

In a given year, RiceTec might explore six or so accessions that could add value to its breeding program.

“All this year, we’ve been forced to go outside of the treaty to negotiate bilateral agreements with individual countries to access germplasm,” says the vice president and business development lead for new products globally.

This is no easy feat. As an example, Ré says that in China, there are hundreds of organizations involved in the licensing of germplasm for rice.

“This is not our preferred way, but this is where we are now,” Ré says. “So far, we’ve been able to survive, but I don’t know for how long.”

Representing RiceTec, Ré has worked hard to coordinate with and support efforts of both ISF and the American Seed Trade Association to accelerate and try and get leaders in the governing body to come to an agreement on the IT.

According to ISF, the best way to preserve genetic resources is to use them.

“Genetic resources which aren’t broadly circulated will not only be underused, they are the ones at risk of being lost,” said Michael Keller, ISF secretary general, during his opening remarks at the GB8 meeting in November. “Using broadly genetic resources is the best way to conserve them. And together, we continue to work to sustain crop diversity and to breed improved varieties that address the nutritional and agronomic challenges of current and future generations.”

As part of the negotiations, one of the goals of ISF was to expand the scope of the IT beyond the 64 crops it covers. Many of the vegetables consumed around the world are not part of the treaty.

To access germplasm for crops that fall outside the scope of the international treaty, companies have to do one-on-one negotiations through the Nagoya Protocol.

“This is essentially starting from scratch,” Khan Niazi says, adding that it can take years to negotiate, which is especially hindering for small- and medium-sized companies that don’t have the inhouse resources to track down and then go through all the negotiations.

She also notes that some companies are still using the language from the IT’s SMTA for vegetable germplasm accessions but then going through the process associated with the Nagoya Protocol.

As the negotiations failed in November at GB8, the scope of crops listed under the IT remains the same.

Nearly everyone recognizes the role of the treaty and the need for compromise.

At the outset of the meeting, Kent Nnadozie, the secretary of the Eighth Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty, said: “The challenge facing us now is to maintain the momentum built over the past 15 years and continue making meaningful contributions toward global food security, sustainable agriculture and the achievement of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We just need to keep in mind our common interests, our undeniable interdependence and arrive at mutually beneficial compromises for the common good of all.”

Marie Haga, who chairs the Global Crop Diversity Trust, added: “The importance of the Treaty has never been greater. This is not a nicety to be said at a birthday party — it’s not an exaggeration — the Plant Treaty has never been more important than it is today and will continue to be so in the years to come. … The future of food is quite simply dependent on a well implemented Plant Treaty with a functioning access- and benefit sharing system.”

What next?

Many in the governing body and associated with the ITPGRFA will be closely watching the meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity and how it moves forward in handling digital sequencing information.

As for the governing body, it won’t meet again for another two years, leaving a lot of companies and participants to smolder. Some might be extinguished as a result, while others might be embers waiting for fuel.