Planting the Seeds of the Future: The Plant Genetic Resources Treaty

by John Knox

July 26, 2012

a(broad) perspective

Today’s post is the sixth in a series on a recent CPR white paper, Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties.  Each month, this series will discuss one of these treaties.  Previous posts are here.

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization on November 3, 2001

Entered into Force on June 29, 2004
Number of Parties: 127

Signed by the United States on November 3, 2002
Sent to the Senate on July 7, 2008
Reported favorably by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 14, 2010

As the world’s population continues to grow, global production of food must grow with it. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that farmers will have to increase production by at least 70 percent by 2050 to satisfy the demand for food due to the world’s growing population, urbanization, and rising incomes. To meet the food demands of a future global population of 9 billion people, significant advances in plant genetics are needed.

The food security of the United States, as well as the world as a whole, depends in large part on the ability of researchers to continue to develop crops with new traits. Plant breeders and farmers rely on the genetic resources of plants around the world as the raw material for new crop varieties. All countries effectively depend on access to the genetic banks of others.  However, there is a tension between the desire to ensure that these raw genetic materials remain in the public domain and the belief that, as a matter of fairness and motivating investment and researches, intellectual property rights in the genetic material and its products should be recognized.

To balance this tension, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture requires each Party to take specified steps to protect its plant genetic resources and promote their sustainable use. It also encourages, but does not require, each Party to protect and promote the rights of farmers and indigenous communities.  Most importantly, the Treaty establishes a Multilateral System to facilitate qualified access to plant genetic resources and to pay royalties from the benefits arising from their use.

The Treaty quickly attracted more than 125 Parties, including Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.  In the United States, the Treaty has received consistent bipartisan support.  It was negotiated initially by the Clinton Administration and was finalized, signed, and submitted to the Senate by the George W. Bush Administration.  The Obama Administration has urged the Senate to give its advice and consent.  Ratification would require no changes in U.S. law.  Indeed, the United States has for many years freely distributed the information covered by the Treaty through the National Plant Germplasm System within the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

The Treaty helps to ensure the continued development of food and agricultural resources on which the world’s population depends.  In addition to the general benefits accruing to the United States as well as other countries from promoting global food security, the establishment of “a stable, legal framework for international germplasm exchanges . . . benefits both research and commercial interests in the United States,” in the words of Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. The Treaty has received support from major U.S. stakeholders, including the American Seed Trade Association, National Farmers Union, the American Soybean Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the Intellectual Property Owners of America.

The widespread support and benefits from ratification provide ample reasons for the United States to adopt the Plant Genetic Resources Treaty.  The Senate should give its advice and consent without delay.

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Also from John Knox

John H. Knox is the Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University. He has taken a leave from CPR while serving as the United Nations' first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

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