Seed Treaty Celebrates Ten Year Anniversary; Focus On Funding, Collaborations 10/07/2014 by Catherine Saez and MaÃ«li Astruc for Intellectual Property Watch Leave a Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)The International Seed Treaty held a celebratory high-level event recently to mark the tenth anniversary of its entry into force. The high-level event, co-organised by the Rome-based International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), and the Geneva office of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), took place in Geneva on 3 July. Achievements, shortcomings and future projects were discussed, as the treaty seeks to be a central actor providing solutions to address challenges such as climate change and food security. Farmers associations claimed the industry is not paying its dues to their thousands of years of conservation efforts. The FAO seed treaty was adopted on 3 November 2001, and entered into force on 29 June 2004. The ITPGRFA provides for a global pool of genetic resources for 64 crops in a multilateral system, freely available for treaty users. The treaty facilitates access to this genetic material and also ensures fair benefit sharing, as those who access genetic materials through this system agree to share any benefits derived from the use of the materials, according to the treaty. The high-level meeting gathered a number of panellists from governments, international organisations, research institutions, industry, and farmers’ representatives. Benefit-Sharing Fund Used for Capacity-Building, Tech Transfer The main achievements of the treaty are its multilateral system of exchange of germplasm and the benefit-sharing fund, and its leading role in the development of an international system of information, said Matthew Worrell, chair of the treaty governing body. The benefit-sharing fund is set up to distribute benefits arising from the use of the multilateral system through capacity building, technology transfer and information-sharing projects, he said. The third round of the benefit-sharing fund has been launched this year with US$10 million available, he said. The benefit-sharing fund has been supplied primarily by member state contributions. An ad-hoc open-ended working group was established to enhance the functioning of the multilateral system, whose first meeting was held in May (IPW, Biodiversity/Genetic Resources/Biotech, 14 May 2014). Oliver Hall-Allen, the first counsellor of the delegation of the European Union to the UN, said the EU “regards the treaty as essential to the governance of plant genetic resources, and for ensuring facilitated access to the most important crops and equitable benefit-sharing.” The European Commission provides regular contributions to the core budget of the treaty, he said. Together with Norway, he added, the EU is the largest single contributor to the benefit-sharing fund of the treaty, operated for the benefit of developing countries. He remarked, however, on some delays in operationalising the EU funds and asked that they be used “with appropriate deadlines.” The delegate said the EU supports the establishment of the ad hoc working group on funding. Collaboration Projects with Other Entities “Agricultural biodiversity is more important than ever, it is the prerequisite for food security,” said Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. She presented a project developed jointly with the treaty called DivSeek. The ideaof DivSeek is to utilise the world’s tools emerging from the combination of the progress made in biology and in big data, she said. “By combining the information we have on where plants grow, information about their physical characteristics and the sequencing data or the plants’ DNA, we should be able to speed up the breeding processes,” she added. Pedro Arcuri from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Cooperation (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária – Embrapa), a Brazilian public research institute, described an ongoing project of a platform for the co-development and transfer of technologies, in the context of non-monetary benefit-sharing under the treaty. This platform stems from a high-level roundtable [pdf] convened by the governments of Brazil, Indonesia and Norway during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. This high-level meeting led to the adoption of a six-point action plan [pdf] for the international treaty. In this context, he said Embrapa is revising the latest version of a collaboration agreement between Embrapa, the Indonesian Agricultural Research and Development Agency, and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation that will give support to the platform, he said. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation is an agriculture partner of the agricultural development programme of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a recipient of funding. The Gates Foundation also granted some US$ 2.5 million to the Africa-Brazil Agricultural Innovation Marketplace, developed by Embrapa, “to promote development in Africa through agricultural innovation.” This illustrates the involvement of the foundation in agricultural development, which “is one of [its] largest initiatives” the foundation says. Arcuri said Embrapa is advocating for mandatory payment as benefit-sharing coming from the use of any improved plant materials derived from the multilateral system “and submitted to the different ownership systems which may restrict” their free use, such as patents, and plant variety protection. Industry Says Need Mechanism Better Suited to Breeding Process Garlich von Essen, secretary-general of the European Seed Association, mentioned that at the time of the adoption of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the life-science revolution was expected to fundamentally transform the economy. Biotechnology “was supposed to become the next big business,” he said, with “development and promises that exceeded those of all other sectors.” “Clearly, this was also supposed and expected to generate substantial economic benefits that would be based on initial access to those genetic resources and that would generate a steady flow of funds towards their original owners,” said von Essen. However, he said, those “promises” were overstated and some expectations remained unfulfilled, he said. The lack of funds of the benefit sharing fund is to some extent encoded in the system, as it links the income at the point of the commercialisation of varieties, which is “very far away” from the moment of original access, he said. A new mechanism should be better adapted to the breeding process and its timeframe, he added. He also noted that the materials currently available within the treaty is insufficient and “it should be improved as quickly as possible.” Access to genetic resources for further breeding, known as the breeder’s exemption, is the key precondition to enable plant breeders to address challenges such as food security, environment sustainability and climate change, he said. Farmers’ Organisations Warn Against Misappropriation Guy Kastler, representing the Via Campesina, a global farmers’ organisation, said they attach particular importance to the treaty as it was the first international agreement recognising farmers’ rights. Another reason for this attachment, he said, is that most of the genetic resources in the multilateral system of the treaty come from farmers’ fields, and their selection and conservation process. However, he said, Via Campesina has growing concerns and is wondering to what extent it should collaborate with the treaty in the future. In particular, he underlined the fact that no industry contribution has been made to the benefit-sharing fund. Today, he said, there is no obligation on a plant breeder marketing its products to disclose the origin of the genetic material used. Plant breeders have access to other genetic resources than the treaty’s gene pool, he said. Companies take patents on plant genetic material originally coming from the farmers’ work of selection and conservation. Tomorrow, someone will tell those farmers that in their fields there is a genetic trait that belongs to a company and they cannot use the plant any longer, he said. The standard material transfer agreement from the treaty does not prevent the patenting of a trait from a seed, which would then be forbidden to use, he said. In a 7 July release, Via Campesina called for the treaty to reject biopiracy. 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