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The International Plant Treaty

The International Plant Treaty was adopted by the Thirty-First Session of the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on 3 November 2001.

The International Plant Treaty aims to:

  • establish a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials;
  • ensure that recipients share the benefits that they derive from the use of these genetic materials;
  • and recognize the enormous contribution of farmers to the diversity of crops that feed the world.

A Global System for a Global Good

Specifically, the International Plant Treaty declared that 64 of our most important crops—which together account for 80% of humanity’s food supply—would be brought into one multilateral system, along with many of their wild relatives. All contracting parties would make their collections of this diversity available to everyone.

Making Crop Diversity Available to All

Under the International Plant Treaty, breeders can easily obtain and work with material of these crop families from more than 130 countries. In many cases they will do something innovative with it, such as create a new variety by combining lines from different parts of the world. Anyone who does so agrees that they will, in turn, make the derived variety freely available – or if they use it to develop a commercial product, that they will pay a percentage of profits into a special benefit sharing fund.

The Crop Trust and the International Plant Treaty

A relationship agreement between the Governing Body of the International Plant Treaty and the Crop Trust was approved at the Governing Body’s first meeting in 2006.

This agreement recognized the Crop Trust as an essential element of the funding strategy of the Treaty. It also established four seats on the Crop Trust’s Executive Board to be appointed by the Governing Body, while confirming the Board’s executive independence in managing the operations and activities of the Crop Trust.

In 2021, the Crop Trust and the International Plant Treaty together launched an Emergency Reserve to provide a financial lifeline to genebanks facing urgent threats to their precious contents. The Reserve, which is the first of its kind, will respond to urgent requests from genebanks in low- and middle-income countries to prevent catastrophic loss of their collections.

Learn more about the Emergency Reserve for Genebanks

Making an asset of interdependence

Working together makes sense when our goals are the same. The International Plant Treaty and its predecessors created the context of cooperation in which we operate, and we are creating a global system that can turn interdependence into a shared wealth of possibilities.

Related resources

Frequently Asked Questions

These questions and answers are abridged from an interview
“The Plant Treaty: Q&A with Crop Trust Director of Science, Luigi Guarino”

What is the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture?

The International Plant Treaty, or Seed Treaty, as it is sometimes known, aims to improve global food security by making it easier for scientists and farmers to obtain and use seeds and other plant material for crop improvement, research, and training. It was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2001 after many years of negotiations and came into force in 2004. As of September 2018, there were 144 contracting parties – 143 countries, plus the European Union.

What do Parties to the Treaty commit to?

Among other things, they commit to sharing plant material of 64 globally important food and forage crops that is under the management and control of the national government and in the public domain, in accordance with agreed rules. These crops are listed in Annex 1 of the Treaty. The rules ensure requesters can obtain the material and that, where appropriate, they share a portion of any monetary benefits arising from their use of it. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but this is referred to as the “Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing''.

Which crops are included in the 64 Crops [in Annex 1]?

Lots of our favorites, like rice, wheat, maize, potato, oat, coconut, banana, millet, yam, carrot, strawberry, and so on.

Why doesn’t Annex 1 cover all food crops?

Because everything in the Treaty was the subject of intense international negotiations among countries. Not all countries agreed to certain crops being included, so some had to be left out.

Why is it important to have a Multilateral System?

Breeders and researchers typically need material from many different sources to get as much crop diversity into their programs as possible. This gives them a better chance of developing new crop varieties that can eventually benefit farmers and consumers. Before the Treaty, they would have had to make separate, bilateral deals with different providers to get those different samples. All that takes time and money… A system like this significantly speeds up the exchange of plant material, helping scientists and farmers make use of it more readily.

So can anyone, anywhere request plant material from a genebank?

Yes, as long as the provider is in one of the 144 contracting parties to the International Plant Treaty. The requester would need to sign something called a Standard Material Transfer Agreement, or SMTA. This ensures requesters abide by the rules set out in the International Plant Treaty, including paying a portion of the monetary benefits arising from their use of that material.

What is the role of the Crop Trust in all this?

For the Multilateral System to work effectively, genebanks need stable, long-term funding. The International Plant Treaty recognizes the Crop Trust as essential to this, by virtue of its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund. This fund, made up of donations from governments, and to a lesser extent, the private sector, accrues interest, which is then used to support genebanks around the world.

In particular, the Crop Trust has committed to supporting the international genebanks recognized under Article 15 of the Treaty as well as the ultimate failsafe for the whole system, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The Crop Trust’s shorter-term projects also further the aims of the Treaty, for example by enhancing crop conservation at the national level through support for seed regeneration (growing plants to replenish or increase seed stocks for conservation), duplication of seeds so they can be safely backed up, collecting crop wild relatives to increase available genetic diversity for crop breeding, and more.

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