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The Ponte Rotto of Rome

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

22 November 2019

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science

In the end, it proved a bridge too far. Delegates at the eighth session of the Governing Body of the Plant Treaty in Rome last week were not able to agree on a package of measures to enhance the Treaty’s Multilateral System (MLS).

That’s a lot of jargon, so let’s break it down.

The Multilateral System refers to the rules the Treaty has put in place for how to access crop diversity and share the benefits arising from its use. I’ve written before here about why having an access and benefit-sharing (ABS) system that’s multilateral, rather than bilateral, is a good idea when you’re working with crop diversity. I hate to quote myself, but this is the bottom line as I put it at the time:

…[breeders] often need crop diversity…from lots of different countries. The transaction costs involved in making bilateral deals with all the different providers of that diversity would be prohibitive, and potentially threaten food security if they caused breeding programmes to grind to a halt.

Why does the system need enhancement? Well, because it hasn’t been delivering enough money, fast enough. Yes, I know it’s not just about the money. I wrote about that too. The Treaty is delivering a whole slew of important non-monetary benefits, everybody agrees on that. But money is important too, and there hasn’t been enough of it.

So what’s that package of measures that was supposed to solve this problem? Well, after years of work, a special committee set up to discuss the matter came up with a couple of linked proposals. First, the range of crops included in the system would be expanded. More crops in the system would mean more opportunities for private sector breeders to make a profit, and therefore more money flowing into the Treaty’s central fund, called the Benefit-Sharing Fund (BSF), administered by FAO.

In addition, though, the negotiators came up with a complementary arrangement whereby seed companies could opt to pay an up-front subscription fee for access to crop diversity in MLS, rather than the current pay-as-you-commercialize levy. There’s far more nuance and complexity here than I can explain in a short post, but the basic idea is that there would be more certainty over how much money was going to be forthcoming in any given year, which would in turn allow better planning for how the BSF could be used to support conservation around the world.

So far, so logical. So what went wrong at the Governing Body?

Well, in a word, data.

More specifically, DNA sequence data on crop diversity. Some countries, and many civil society organizations, contended – have indeed long been saying – that seed companies would soon be able to produce and market new varieties simply by manipulating genomic data in open-access repositories. That is, without needing to access actual seeds, and thus triggering the ABS provisions of the Treaty. In their view, this is a loophole that should be closed.

Others said that this is far-fetched, and that DNA sequence data needs to be freely available for researchers and breeders to do their work properly, and deliver new, better varieties, faster. Charging scientists for using genomic data, even if a way could be found of doing it, would impede vital research.

CGIAR came up with an interesting suggestion to address the impasse. What if the subscription rates were negotiated, and recognized, as reflecting the use of genomic data, as well as physical seeds? Then there would be benefit sharing payments and the data would continue to be openly available. It wasn’t a complete solution, because a subscription system doesn’t fully capture all the ways that DNA sequence data can be used to make a profit. But it looked like a potential way to bridge the two positions.

It was a bridge, however, that the parties to the Treaty could not, finally, cross. And so we remain with the old, un-enhanced MLS.

Other important stuff was agreed in Rome, and it was great to have the opportunity to celebrate the undoubted achievements of the Treaty on its 15th birthday. But MLS enhancement was the big one. It’s disappointing that it was not even possible to find agreement on a formal mechanism for continuing to negotiate on the issue in the run-up to the next Governing Body meeting, in India, in two years’ time. The MLS needs to function, and function effectively and equitably, delivering both monetary and non-monetary benefits, for all to see. Our food and agriculture depend on it.

Category: Genebanks

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