The FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) was approved at the 2001 Conference of the FAO in Rome. It came into force in Switzerland on 20th February 2005.

This treaty has four objectives:

  • The plant-based genetic resources for food and agriculture, which constitute the basis of food products in the world, must be preserved and used in a sustainable way.
  • The exceptional contribution of farmers to the preservation and development of genetic resources must be recognised, and the resulting rights (farmers’ rights) must be respected.
  • The global treaty must facilitate access for farmers, breeders and scientists to phytogenetic resources.
  • The gains arising from the use of genetic resources must be shared with the countries of origin of such resources, as well as with farmers.

Access and sharing of rewards via a multilateral system

The FAO Treaty regulates the conditions of access and sharing of the gains from 64 species essential to food and agriculture, according to a list appended to the treaty.

Contrary to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol, based on a bilateral approach between suppliers and users of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, the FAO Treaty establishes a multilateral system with the objective of favouring facilitated access to plant-based resources essential to food and agriculture, while guaranteeing a fair and equitable sharing of rewards resulting from their use.

The multilateral system includes all the resources that are managed and administered by the contracting parties and belong in the public domain. It also includes resources maintained in the ex situ collections of the International Agricultural Research Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (GCRAI). The Treaty also expects that the parties encourage private companies to incorporate their resources in the multilateral system.

Facilitated access to the resources of the multilateral system is guaranteed by a standard agreement for the transfer of material. In other words, it is not necessary to negotiate a specific contract for each resource with the country of origin. Contrary to the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is sufficient in this case to sign a standard agreement which automatically grants access.

Access is granted when the objective is conservation and use for research, selection and training for food and agriculture. The beneficiaries cannot claim any intellectual property rights or other right limiting easy access to plant-based genetic resources for food and agriculture or their parts, or genetic components in the form received by the multilateral system.

Those who access genetic material via the multilateral system agree to pay the gains resulting from its use into a common fund. This money must benefit first of all the farmers in developing countries, who contribute to the preservation of resources.

The limits of the multilateral system

The multilateral system is still far from perfect: many collections of genetic resources have not yet been integrated, and no checks are performed to find out whether illegal patents have been delivered. Moreover, to date, no payment – though mandatory – has been made by the seed industry towards the fund. To remedy this, negotiations on a reform of the system are ongoing.

Public Eye, whose analysis has enabled the highlighting of the gaps in the multilateral system, is actively participating in this process by putting forward concrete proposals.