Science Blog

Hope for Multilateralism Yet

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science

I think it’s fair to say that things have not been going very well for multilateralism lately. Quite apart from what’s been happening in politics around the world, but possibly connected to it, there has been a significant setback in the negotiations to enhance the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (MLS) being developed by the Plant Treaty. I blogged about it almost exactly a year ago, as it happens.

One could therefore be forgiven for thinking that genebanks, national and international, have of late been mainly looking inward and treading water – if that’s possible.

But a recent paper in the journal Plants – entitled Germplasm Acquisition and Distribution by CGIAR Genebanks – shows that that’s in fact far from the case. Written under the aegis of the CGIAR Genebank Platform, it paints a picture of dynamism and openness that is pleasingly at odds with the zeitgeist.

The idea was to review annual data on the numbers of samples coming into, and going out of, the 11 CGIAR genebanks during the period 2013-2019, complementing an earlier, similar study, published in 2012. The results were striking.

Due in large part to a number of specific projects, which brought together national programs and the CGIAR centers, acquisitions by the international genebanks actually increased during the study period, compared to the preceding decade. In total, in the 10 years from 2010 to 2019, inclusive, the CGIAR genebanks acquired almost 117,000 samples to include in their Article 15 collections, and make available in the Plant Treaty’s MLS. About 76,000 of these came from providers in 142 different countries (the rest being from the centers’ own breeding programs). That’s a remarkable show of trust by these countries, as well as a benefit to them.

But it hasn’t been one-way traffic. On the distribution side, again over the same 10 years, the CGIAR genebanks have sent out into the world on average 115,000 samples of germplasm every year, up from 95,000 annually during the previous decade (a 20% increase). About 60,000 samples a year have been going to recipients outside the CGIAR itself, an increasing proportion of the total. The internal distributions of germplasm also benefit countries, however, as they mainly go to CGIAR breeders, who then make their products widely available to national breeding programs.

How has this been possible, in the prevailing political climate? As the lead author of the paper, Dr Michael Halewood of the Alliance of CIAT and Bioversity, likes to put it, it’s down to good policies, good partnerships, planning and money. The good policies are those of the Plant Treaty. There is evidence, the paper suggests, that the MLS “is contributing positively to the willingness of many countries, national genebanks, and other providers to make PGRFA available and to safety-duplicate material in the CGIAR Center-hosted international collections.” On the other side, the very fact that the Plant Treaty’s Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) is standard has meant that the transaction costs involved in centers acquiring material have plummeted. Partnerships and planning speak to the relationships between CGIAR Centers and the countries from which they are able to acquire genetic resources. The genebank managers note a positive correlation between a shared sense of mission and purpose with particular national programs, and two-way flows of germplasm, knowhow, and training between the Centers and those countries. As for planning, the Centers have put a lot of effort in recent years into analyzing their collections, and comparing them with what’s available in national genebanks, to precisely target what they need to acquire.

Last, but definitely not least, money. Fortunately, due to the generosity and far-sightedness of donors, there have also been substantial resources available to support partnerships with national programs: on collecting, on regeneration, on safety duplication, on gap analysis, and on conservation research and technology transfer.

Together, these policies, partnership, planning, and money have resulted in a substantial increase in the crop diversity available in the MLS, to the benefit of all. In that there is more hope than we perhaps had any right to expect. And these days, we do all need some good news.

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