National Sovereignty and Access to Genetic Resources
Jaap Hardon
Keywords:  Access to genetic resources; Intellectual property rights.
Correct citation: Hardon, J. (1996), "National Sovereignty and Access to Genetic Resources." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 27, p. 24.

According to Jaap Hardon, open access to genetic material is essential for the breeding of future food crops. Therefore, the principle of national sovereignty adopted at the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) should be followed up by a complementary multilateral agreement that respects this open access, but at the same time provides a fair and non-bureaucratic distribution of its benefits.

Ownership and control over genetic resources has replaced original concerns about loss of biodiversity and its conservation as the central issue in the biodiversity debate. Loss of natural biodiversity results from a large number of human activities and is location specific. Therefore, national sovereignty is an accepted principle to regulate exploitation and protection of natural biodiversity. When later in the debate, and at the specific insistence of a number of developing countries, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) were included as an area of major concern, the principle of national sovereignty over genetic resources was adopted, and laid down in the CBD. This raises, however, a number of problems:

(1) PGRFA are dispersed across national boundaries. Since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, crops have spread out from their natural areas of distribution along with a continuous process of domestication through natural and human selection. In this process, farmers (often women) produced countless "landraces" which were better adapted to specific requirements or new environments. These landraces are now a major genetic resource, together with related wild species of crops. Few, if any, countries are self-sufficient in genetic resources. Agriculture in most countries relies to a considerable extent on introduced crops. This even applies to countries that are very rich in natural biodiversity, such as Brazil. The main Brazilian food crops are wheat, rice, maize and beans, which all originate from other parts of the world.

(2) National sovereignty restricts open access, a principle which is essential for plant breeding. The value of specific landraces and of the genetic diversity they represent is well understood by farmers in traditional agricultural systems. Nevertheless, the common practice in such systems throughout the world is open access to and exchange of genetic material. Also in modern plant breeding, legislation on plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) only provides special rights for the commercial sale of seed, but does not restrict the use of a protected variety for further breeding. Hence, genetic diversity, whether in the form of a landrace, a modern variety or wild material, is seen as a common resource for further improvement. In fact, this view is the overriding justification for conservation, collection and evaluation of PGRFA. Open systems of exchange are still functioning at the local, national, regional and global level, and gained international acceptance in principle in the FAO Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources of 1983.

(3) Bilateral agreements do not suit exchange of PGRFA. According to the CBD, access to biodiversity, when granted, should be subject to "prior informed consent" and "mutually agreed terms". In itself these requirements need not be questioned. The problem is how they will be interpreted and implemented. In this respect, bilateral agreements are an obvious solution for dealing with unauthorized exploration (referred to as ‘biopiracy’) and exploitation of natural biodiversity like tropical rainforest for new compounds or products. But in the case of PGRFA, these agreements will not only raise a spectre of complex bureaucratic procedures, but the sharing of benefits between the country of origin and the user of genetic material will be complicated as well. Plant breeding requires access to entire or selected parts of gene pools of crops which often are spread over gene bank collections, farmers’ fields and natural areas in different countries. To give an example, the development of the rice variety IR36 took twenty years and it has 15 landraces and one wild species in its genetic background. Who is entitled to receive what share? Furthermore, most new crop varieties will only yield small financial profits, which are further reduced by legal and administrative costs of implementing a bilateral system. Finally, countries that harbour important genetic resources and countries that can offer advanced plant breeding and biotechnology capabilities will be in a strong negotiation position. But the many countries that have neither of these are likely to see their economic dependence increase.

Because of these problems, the present practice of open access should be both continued and adjusted in order to provide more fairness in the distribution of benefits resulting from use of PGRFA. The CBD should be complemented by a multilateral agreement that regulates exchange of germplasm between participating countries with agreed sharing of costs of conservation and benefits of use. The establishment of a multilateral open access regime is the best way to avoid exclusive commercial rights on specific plant genetic resources. It should embrace a financial mechanism that supports conservation programmes worldwide. The fund should not be voluntary, and contributions of governments should be based on fixed criteria.

In order to cope with the need for food for a growing world population, PGRFA need to be conserved, and open access safeguarded. This aim should be reached at the FAO International Technical Conference on PGRFA to be held in Leipzig (Germany) in June 1996.
Jaap Hardon

Director of the Centre for Genetic Resources, part of the Centre for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research (CPRO-DLO), Wageningen, the Netherlands.

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