Access and benefit sharing in the FAO Plant Treaty needs serious improvements or the Treaty will never achieve its objectives
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07.03.2011  - Two new reports (1, 2) commissioned by the Berne Declaration (Switzerland) and the Development Fund (Norway) highlight serious shortcomings in the Multilateral System for Access and Benefit Sharing of the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). The Governing Body of the Treaty, meeting in Bali, Indonesia, from March 14th to 18th, has to tackle this problem, otherwise the Treaty will not achieve its objectives of conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of these resources.

The global community applauded the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) under the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan in October 2010. The mechanism to implement ABS for crop genetic resources, however, is facing severe challenges. The Multilateral system for ABS is a cornerstone of the FAO Plant Treaty, which entered into force in 2004. Seven years later, many problems remain. Some of the main issues have never been discussed by the Governing Body, while others have been postponed several times. “By not tackling the shortcomings of the Multilateral System, the Governing Body of the Plant Treaty is putting the credibility of the Plant Treaty and its objectives at stake,” says Bell Batta Torheim from the Development Fund.

The access to PGRFA seems to have been facilitated at first glance and this is often communicated as the success story of the Treaty. However, only less than one-sixth of the Parties and no companies and institutions that are not part of a national PGRFA System have included their collections of PGRFA into the System.

Furthermore, collections of non-contracting parties, such as the gene bank of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), are seriously undermining the system. “Our research on Sorghum accessions shows that a majority of users, universities and private companies alike prefer to access Sorghum material through the USDA rather than via ICRISAT, the main collection incorporated in the Multilateral System (with a lot of similarities to the USDA Collection)”, says Meienberg from the Berne Declaration. Contrary to access through the Multilateral System, access via USDA does not include restrictions for Intellectual Property Rights and does not lead to any form of mandatory benefit-sharing payments.

In regard to benefit-sharing, the achievements of the Treaty are limited to voluntary donations by a very few number of Contracting Parties and International Organizations. The research done is questioning if this money is additional money or just redirected funds that have been removed from other projects relating to agriculture and development. However, the only sustainable way to ensure predictable and continuing benefit-sharing is by mandatory payments of the users of PGRFA. To do so, there are two possibilities: As a first step the interpretation of “available without restriction” has to be clarified. This clarification has to take into account the needs of on-farm-breeding and has to make clear that the requirement to pay Benefit-Sharing includes all patented products using PGRFA of the MLS, but also products protected by Plant Variety Protection according to UPOV 91, and products incorporating technological restrictions like CMS Hybrids. This would already lead to a drastic increase of the potential Benefit-Sharing payment. Additionally, the Governing Body should immediately start the process to prepare a decision to change the obligation for mandatory payments with the goal to include all commercialized seeds.

But as long as there is no efficient compliance mechanism for the Multilateral System and the Standard Material Transfer Agreement, the benefit-sharing requirements and the restrictions for patents stand on shaky ground. “There will never be compliance with mandatory requirements for benefit-sharing payments and for not patenting genetic resources from the system if there is no control. Closing this gap is essential for the functioning of the Multilateral System,” says François Meienberg from the Berne Declaration.

The severe shortcomings of the Multilateral System of the ITGRFA have to be addressed at the upcoming meeting of the Governing Body in Bali. Leaving the System as it is puts into question both the implementation of the whole FAO Plant Treaty, and thus also the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, securing food security for the future.

For more information:

François Meienberg, Berne Declaration, food[at],
Tel: +41 44 277 70 04, +41 79 796 76 12

Bell Batta Torheim; Development Fund, bell[at]
Tel: + 47 23 10 96 00, +47 41 1234 04


1: Claudio Chiarolla (IDDRI, Paris) and Stefan Jungcurt (IASS, Potsdam), March, 2011, Outstanding Issues on Access and Benefit Sharing under the Multilateral System of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a background study paper by the Berne Declaration and the Development Fund
Available online at: and

2: Edward Hammond, March, 2011, How US Sorghum Seed Distributions Undermine the FAO Plant Treaty’s Multilateral System. A briefing paper by the Berne Declaration, the Development Fund and the African Center for Biosafety
Available online at: and

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