Science Blog

It was neither the best nor the worst of times.

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

It was neither the best nor the worst of times. Dickens would not have got very far with that opening, but it’s an accurate summary of the tale of two cities that I have lived in over the past few months, and want now to tell you.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

The two cities are Kigali and Bonn, which have both just hosted important international meetings. The 7th Session of the Governing Body (GB7) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) took place in Kigali from 30 October to 3 November 2017. That was followed by the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP 23) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Bonn from 6 to 17 November.

The final texts of the resolutions of GB7 are now available on the ITPGRFA’s website. But, take it from someone who was there, if you want an accurate but somewhat more accessible summary of the meeting, read that provided by IISD’s Earth Negotiation Bulletin (ENB). You’ll find a lot of ambivalence there. Yes, there was general agreement that some progress had been made on Farmers’ Rights, for example; a “breakthrough” even. Great, the best of times! But what was that breakthrough exactly? Well, a technical working group will be established to, in the words of the relevant resolution:

  1. Produce an inventory of national measures that may be adopted, best practices and lessons learned from the realization of Farmers’ Rights, as set out in Article 9 of the International Treaty;
  2. Based on the inventory, develop options for encouraging, guiding and promoting the realization of Farmers’ Rights as set out in Article 9 of the International Treaty.

One might have hoped for, I don’t know, a bit more perhaps, to paraphrase Dickens again.

Likewise, on the enhancement of the Multilateral System (MLS), as ENB says, after a lot of work since the last GB by a technical committee, “[s]everal participants came to Kigali hoping to solve any outstanding matters during this session.” But it was not to be.

Recall that the current access and benefit sharing system established for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture is based on use of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA). If you obtain material from the MLS, the common pool of material established by the ITPGRFA, using the SMTA, commercialize a product derived from that material, and remove that product from the MLS (by, say, taking out some sort of intellectual property protection on it), you have to pay a percentage of your profits into the ITPGRFA’s Benefit Sharing Fund (BSF).

Alas, this is not generating the hoped-for benefits. Though countries and others are making voluntary contributions to the BSF, no money has yet come in from the hundreds of SMTAs that have been issued. Lots of non-monetary benefits, of course, but no money.

Thanks to a number of long late-nights sessions, some common ground was indeed found on how to improve the system, but a lot of work still remains to be done. A complementary subscription model seems to have gained acceptance, where access to the MLS would be granted in exchange for “annual payments based on the Sales of products that are Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture by the Subscriber and its affiliates.” But the devil will be in the details, in particular the rates of payment, and figuring all that out has been left to inter-sessional work, again.

So you can see how whereas it wasn’t the worst of times in Kigali, it was also not exactly the best of times either.

Same in Bonn the following week.

Rapidly acclimatizing from balmy Kigali back to a frigid Bonn, I worked with my colleagues at the Crop Trust and our partners at CCAFS to organize and take part in a series of side events to help set an agenda for transforming agricultural development in the face of climate change. Did it work?

Well, you can read CCAFS’s take on the outcomes of COP23 on their blog. Again, there is room for both optimism and disappointment.

Sure, there was a decision on what to do about agriculture within the UNFCCC process, the so-called Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, and to move from technical discussion to implementation. But the priority areas for action do not include “…several key areas for climate action in agriculture, such as agroforestry, aquaculture, stress tolerant varieties, climate information services, and weather index-based agricultural insurance…” The list is prefaced with the words “starting with but not limited to,” but still.

Again, someone coming from Kigali, where despite the disagreements and disappointments there was universal recognition of the critical role crop diversity can play, and indeed is playing, in climate change adaptation, might have hoped for a bit more.

So, am I downcast, after a busy few weeks? No. As Dickens also said: “There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.”

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