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Show Me the Non-monetary Benefits

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

1 July 2019

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science

Whenever the subject of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Treaty) comes up, I automatically think of the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire. The movie was fairly popular, but it is perhaps mainly remembered for introducing into the zeitgeist two widely used and often remixed phrases: “You had me at hello” and “Show me the money.”

Both come to my mind unbidden when I’m discussing the Treaty.

To explain: in the movie, Jerry Maguire is a sports agent; he wants Rod Tidwell, an American football player, to remain a client. But Rod is holding out until he sees how big a contract Jerry can negotiate for him at a difficult stage of his career.

Rod has a point, of course. American football careers are short at the best of times, and they can end suddenly, and painfully. It makes sense for players to want to see money up front, and lots of it. Jerry may truly love the game, and be more honest than average. He may even ask for a smaller fee than is usual. But in the end, it comes down to how much money he can put in Rod’s pocket.

My thoughts wander in this odd direction during genetic resources policy discussions because it seems to me that anyone involved with the Treaty knows exactly how Jerry must have felt. The pressure is really on for this painstakingly assembled inter-governmental agreement to deliver significant amounts of monetary benefits to countries that sign on to its special arrangements for sharing crop diversity. In other words, to show them the money.

Remember that the idea was that the Treaty would offer easy access to diversity in genebanks, including those managed by the CGIAR centers. Seed companies were expected to make extensive use of the conserved material to release more commercial varieties. The companies would make money from their use of diversity in genebanks, pay an agreed percentage of their profits into the Treaty’s central fund (the Benefit-Sharing Fund), and the resulting cash flow would be used to support conservation around the world on a continuing basis. Everybody wins.

It’s not that no money has shown up at all – governments have made voluntary payments and one company has ‘tripped’ the mandatory payment conditions. But it is fair to say that many countries have found the amounts disappointing, and the flow too slow and unpredictable, triggering attempts to improve the system. We will see the results of these negotiations at the next meeting of the Governing Body of the Treaty, in November.

But a recent paper in Crop Science, put together by policy experts from Bioversity International and CGIAR genebank managers, breeders and science managers under the framework of the CGIAR Genebank Platform, shows quite clearly it is wrong to see the Treaty as a glorified sports agent. There’s much more to the benefits that can accrue from the use of crop diversity than dollars and cents. The paper shows in detail what the Treaty’s jargon describes, in Article 13 to be precise, as the “non-monetary benefits” of access and use of genetic resources. These are all too often unfairly overlooked.

First and foremost, relatively friction-less access to germplasm is a benefit in and of itself. After all, the 11 international genebanks of CGIAR carefully keep alive, and make available, 736,111 distinct samples of crop diversity, about a third of the estimated total of unique genebank samples around the world. Between 2007 and 2016, CGIAR genebanks shipped out almost 1 million seed packets to users in virtually every country in the world, under Treaty rules. This is a huge service to the world research and farming community.

But the authors of the paper also remind us that among the major users of the international collections are the breeding programs of the CGIAR itself, and those also generate enormous global public benefits. In fact, that 1 million samples distributed goes up to almost 4 million when you count the diversity sent out into the world by the CGIAR breeding programs, again all following Treaty rules. The paper includes a big table that lists the scope and aims of these efforts, which range from breeding for drought tolerance in maize to nematode resistance in yams. The myriad new breeding lines and varieties which result from all this work, and the improved agronomic practices and technologies that go with them, have resulted in “increased household income, as well as national and regional economic development” in developing countries, the authors say. These may not count as monetary benefits under the Treaty, but they surely count for something in the fight against hunger, malnutrition and poverty. And they are worth money to the farmers using them.

CGIAR centers also generate vast amounts of information about the germplasm they conserve and produce. They make this information available in numerous open-access databases and platforms, from Genesys, the one-stop shop for data on the world’s genebank holdings, to crop-specific portals that provide information on the latest varieties being developed and released. Again, these may not be direct monetary benefits, but they are nevertheless of very clear and concrete value for the world’s researchers, farmers and consumers.

And finally, the paper’s authors point to capacity development. This is at the core of CGIAR’s work. About a thousand students receive degree training at various levels every year thanks to support from CGIAR centers and research programs. In addition, centers and programs offer a variety of shorter-term training opportunities, from courses on plant breeding lasting up to several months to week-long workshops on genetic resources policy and genebank management - including data management. And then of course there’s the training offered to farmers around the world to make effective use of the new germplasm and technologies.

I think the paper does a good job of showcasing the non-monetary benefits that the CGIAR system provides in the context of the Treaty. And it’s OK, I get it. In real life, no one is ever going to say to either me or its authors “Shut up. You had me at provision of germplasm and technology transfer.” But there’s a less remembered line from Jerry Maguire that maybe the Treaty could adopt. “I’m out here for you.”

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