Access to a variety of crop genetic resources is an essential component of maintaining and improving current agriculture production levels. Maintaining this crop diversity requires the collaboration of many actors, across many political and geographical plains. The United Nations International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted in 2001 began to address this challenge by recognizing the contributions of farmers to crops diversity and establishing a global system to provide farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders with access to genetic materials. Until this year, one major UN player had not joined the treaty: The United State of America. The USA is a net exporter of food and is a major global trade partner, exporting $135.4 billion in agriculture in 2011. However, very few crops are indigenous to the United States.
In spring 2016 CIAT scientists published the paper, “Origins of food crops connect countries worldwide,” detailing the origins of food plants, the ongoing globalization of food systems, and the importance of international collaboration in sharing of genetic materials. The following May, one of CIAT’s partners from the United States Government Affairs for the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), attended a hearing with the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. ASTA presented the case for genetic diversity, and using CIAT’s paper as a main talking point, explained how plant breeding works.
The committee members, whom generally have little or no agricultural background, were compelled by CIAT’s research and were enthusiastic about taking part in the treaty. According to Jane DeMarchi, Vice President of ASTA, “[The CIAT] paper and corresponding blog post were very helpful in securing the ratification for the Treaty. The research was able to bring to life the concept that access to germplasm collections is a public good that can impact everyday life. The visual aids really brought home the message that very few crops are indigenous to the U.S.”
What has changed?
In March 2017 the United States officially became a member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The treaty main component is its “Multilateral System” which “facilitates access to access to a globe-spanning collection of plant genetic resources, exclusively for use in research, breeding and training efforts — and which includes measures to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of any financial benefits that result,” (FAO). Now that the USA has joined forces with the other treaty members, the treaty secures that actors in the USA who access genetic resources from the Multilateral System cannot be claimed under intellectual property rights. Also, those who commercialize plants bred with these materials will pay a share of the returns to a trust fund to support genetic resource conservation and sustainability in developing countries.