Biodiversity Policies
within FAO or CoP?

Robin Pistorius

Keywords:  Germplasm conservation; Access to genetic resources; Intellectual property rights; Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO); United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED); United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Correct citation: Pistorius, R. (1995), "Biodiversity Policies within FAO or CoP?" Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 25, p. 21-23.

Intergovernmental regulation on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources is no longer a matter for the FAO alone. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, there is widespread awareness that conservation issues involve not only agricultural but also environmental concerns. Since the issues dealt with in the two fora overlap more and more, the need for cooperation is increasing.

Since 1946 FAO has been involved in the conservation and use of genetic resources for agriculture. Also, the history of FAO’s Technical Conferences is nearly three decades longer than the UNCED process. The 1961 Technical Meeting on Plant Exploration and Introduction, organized and hosted by the FAO, can be considered as an informal starting point in the thinking about ex situ conservation for agricultural purposes on an international scale. Wider political recognition of the problem came a few years later when the Green Revolution was in full swing. The 1967 FAO/IBP Technical Conference on the Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources was organized by the UK based International Biological Programme (IBP) and the FAO. The second 1967 FAO/IBP Conference laid the foundation for the scientific premises behind ex situ conservation on an international level.

A new division of labour: FAO, CGIAR, and UNEP
In 1972, shortly before the third FAO Technical Conference, these premises were taken over by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). This implied that conservation of plant genetic resources (PGR) became strictly defined in terms of the requirements of international agricultural research centres supporting the Green Revolution. The result was the current ex situ CGIAR gene bank network. The central coordinator in the exchange of CGIAR’s PGR was the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), which was converted into the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in early 1994.
Since the establishment of IBPGR in 1974, FAO and CGIAR developed a delicate division of labour. While CGIAR remained in charge of conserving much of PGR in ex situ collections, FAO as an intergovernmental agency developed legal guidelines on the conservation and access to PGR. Especially the free exchange of germplasm was a major and controversial theme in the debates during FAO Conference meetings in 1979, 1981 and 1983.
As a result FAO established a permanent intergovernmental FAO forum: the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources (CPGR), and a legal framework: the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. Both FAO bodies functioned as the main fora for PGR-issues during most of the 1980s. In the same period, however, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) increasingly started to focus on PGR and biodiversity issues. The Convention on Biological Diversity (or Biodiversity Convention) was signed in June 1992 and prepared by UNEP.

FAO’s Global System
At the moment, FAO prepares the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources (ITC) to be held in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996. The ITC can be considered as an attempt to consolidate (or re-establish) FAO’s position in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for agriculture. Since 1983, FAO’s CPGR has been making a major effort to establish a Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, under which the CPGR itself and the Undertaking are the major pillars. The objectives of the Global System are to promote, and support financially, conservation and sustainable use of PGR. Three elements can be distinguished:

This Global Plan comprises two components. The first is a report on the State of the World’s PGR. It will describe the current situation of PGR for food and agriculture at the global level and be elaborated through a country-driven preparatory process. The second component is the International Fund, which is supposed to function through the implementation of the concept of Farmer’s Rights. At the fourth ITC the first Global Plan of Action will be presented. The list of the goals of the Plan forms a strong impetus to integrate conservation and (economic) use of PGR (see box).
Fourth International Technical Conference 

FAO’s Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources will mainly focus on the state of the World’s plant genetic resources (PGR), and the adoption of the Global Plan of Action. Last November, during the 28th session of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources (CPGR), the following goals of the Plan, amongst others, were announced: 

  • explore and collect important and/or threatened PGR, and monitor genetic diversity and erosion; 
  • identify and overcome the obstacles for the utilization of conserved resources in order to promote their use; 
  • promote and develop methodologies for on-farm and community-level conservation and use of PGR as part of an integrated conservation and utilization strategy; 
  • promote in situ conservation of wild plants as part of an integrated conservation strategy, and identify sites for collecting in situ conservation; 
  • strengthen plant breeding and pre-breeding capabilities, utilize greater diversity in plant breeding and promote approaches to plant breeding which promote the maintenance of diversity; 
  • facilitate access to PGR, information and technologies; 
  • promote the development of legal and other mechanisms to protect the rights of providers of germplasm; 
  • develop methodologies for the economic valuation of PGR and for the realization of these values; 
  • promote national and regional planning for conservation and sustainable utilization of PGR and integration with planning for sustainable agriculture. 
The conference will be held in Leipzig, Germany, 17-23 June 1996. 
For further information: 

David Cooper/Cary Fowler 
FAO, International Conference and Programme on Plant Genetic Resources, Via delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy. 
Phone (+39) 6 5225 5925; Fax (+39) 6 5225 5533; 
E-mail david.cooper@fao.org/c.fowler@fao.org 

Conservation, access and use of PGR, however, are not only main goals of FAO’s Global Plan, but also the core subjects of the Conferences of Parties (CoP), the regular meetings of the 167 signatories of the UNCED Biodiversity Convention. Since 1992, UNEP succesfully galvanized its position as the Biodiversity Convention’s prime secretariat. The first CoP (CoP-1) was held at the Bahamas in November/ December 1994, the second CoP in Indonesia, November 1995, just a half year before the planned ITC meeting. The FAO Conference Resolution 7/93 calls for the adaptation of the FAO Undertaking in harmony with the Biodiversity Convention. However, how the Convention will be integrated into the Global System is still a pending issue in future CoPs. Simultaneously, the CPGR attempted to maintain the Global System as a fixed agenda point during the CoP-1 and CoP-2. Why not a single post-UNCED programme? Taking a look at some inter-institutional politics may be useful at this point.

In situ conservation
The difference between UNEP’s Biodiversity Convention and FAO’s Undertaking and the Global Plan of Action is that the latter offers a more detailed and specific agreement on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (often land races), being a distinct sub set of biological diversity. Unlike wild biological diversity as dealt with under the Biodiversity Convention, these resources:

A recent and important step towards the realization of FAO Global Plan of Action was that the CGIAR placed its twelve gene banks under the auspices of the FAO in December 1994 (see also Monitor No. 24).
Both the Biodiversity Convention (UNEP) and the Global Plan of Action (FAO) focus on in situ conservation, and both support sustainable use of the PGR in situ. However, some critical NGO’s fear that if either one of the organizations attain a leading position with regard to in situ conservation, it will be detrimental to the other one. For example, Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), Spain, in a briefing paper circulated during a preparatory sessions of CoP-2 clearly pushed for a leading role for FAO in in situ conservation, stating: "A recent review of protected area conservation approaches shows that there are numerous examples of local communities being expelled from their settlements (...) In this aggressively intentioned conservation agenda, the [Biodiversity] Convention singles out these in situ methods as the prime tool to conserve global biodiversity. Indeed the Convention’s designers and proponents largely draw from international nature conservation agencies." At the other end of the spectrum, the Biodiversity Coalition, Australia, is of the opinion that "(...) as the FAO/CGIAR agreement on ex situ collections has considerably extended the mandate of CPGR with regard to PGR, the idea of FAO having international responsibility for in situ conservation is a bit too much to stomach."

Farmers’ Rights
The difficulties related to the overlapping focus of the FAO and UNEP on conservation strategies is also reflected in the respective benefit sharing mechanisms. While the FAO Global Plan of Action focuses on Farmers’ Rights as a primary mechanism "to protect the rights of the providers of genetic resources", the Biodiversity Convention involves a much wider range of beneficiaries. The Convention has provided countries with national sovereignty over genetic resources being part of biological diversity in the broadest sense. Additionally, the role of indigenous communities (and not specifically farmers) in the implementation of national conservation policies has been a central element of CoP-1 and CoP-2.
Although the preparatory documents for the ITC refer to indigenous communities, Farmers’ Rights appear to be an important, but still unresolved issue. The CPGR refers to Agenda 21 and the Keystone meeting in Madras (1990), both calling for Farmers’ Rights, to emphasize the need for continuous research on the concept. However, it remains unclear how Farmers’ Rights relate to national sovereign rights of states, and what role the CPGR will have in setting up a benefit sharing mechanism between farmers and governments that want to exercise their rights.
During the preparation phases of both the CoPs and the ITC, questions such as "How can the Convention contribute to the preparation for the ITC" and vice versa have become part of the formal agenda setting. For the ITC next year, the CoP has announced to prepare a statement which "may include the common elements". Also, CoP-3 will discuss the outcomes of the ITC and even has complemented the ITC’s preparatory process based upon national reports, regional and subregional meetings. These statements, however, can not prevent one from getting the impression that, although plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are formally being acknowledged as crucial elements of biological diversity by both fora, a unified of better synchronized mechanism would save a lot of energy.
Robin Pistorius

University of Amsterdam, Department of Political Science, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 237, 1012 DL Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Phone (+31) 20 525 4587; Fax (+31) 20 525 2086; E-mail pistorius@pscw.uva.

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