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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Melissa D. Ho
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) serve as the raw material used by plant breeders and farmers to create new crop varieties. As such, they are viewed by many as the foundation for modern agriculture and as essential for achieving global food security. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than three-quarters of the increased crop productivity of the past 30 years is the result of plant breeding, and that future global food security depends to a large extent on the continued improvement of food crops—for example, developing new varieties that are higher-yielding, resistant to pests and diseases, resistant to extreme weather events such as drought or flood, and/or regionally adapted to different environments and growing conditions. All countries of the world are interdependent when it comes to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; each relies on others for the genetic basis of its major food crops and for its food security. Interdependence for major food crops—the measure of reliance on nonindigenous staple crop germplasm that comes from other parts of the world—is over 50% for most regions, and ranges from 67% to 84% for countries in central Africa and from 85% to 100% for countries in south Asia. The high degree of interdependence argues for free access by countries to a wide range of plant genetic resources from other regions, in order to ensure future crop improvement and continued gains in agricultural productivity globally.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Treaty on PGRFA) provides a general framework for conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources. The treaty sets up a multilateral system of access and benefit sharing, where all members, in exercise of their sovereignty, provide free (or nearly free) access to each other’s plant genetic resources for research, breeding, conservation, and training. The multilateral approach allows members access to germplasm to promote food security and improve crop productivity, lowers transaction costs, and redistributes back to the governing body financial benefits derived from the commercial exploitation of the genetic resources.

Currently, 120 countries are parties to the treaty. The United States signed the treaty on November 1, 2002 (Treaty Doc. 110-19), and it was submitted by the Bush Administration to the Senate for advice and ratification on July 7, 2008. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony in support of ratification on November 10, 2009. On December 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee adopted, without objection, the international treaty on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (Treaty Doc. 110-19), but it was not considered by the entire Senate before the close of the 111
th Congress. In the 112th session, Congress may assess several issues related to ratification of the Treaty on PGRFA, including the implications for the United States’ position on the Convention for Biological Diversity; the implications for the United States’ position on intellectual property rights; the expectations for future financial commitments under the treaty, especially for capacity-building in developing countries; and the potential implications, if any, for congressional proposals related to international agricultural research and development.

Date of Report: December 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: R41091
Price: $29.95

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