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Boost for conservation of plant gene assets

June 1, 2009 By Natasha Gilbert This article courtesy of Nature News.

Financial worries accompany award of first grants under international treaty.

An international treaty aimed at protecting and improving access to the world's plant genetic resources is set to dole out its first round of research grants this week amid cash-flow problems that could endanger future awards.

The grants, which will support research into new crop varieties and plant-conservation efforts in developing countries, mark the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. The treaty is best known for its role in paving the way for construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway — an underground cavern containing a stock of plant seeds from around the world.

Some 120 nations are party to the treaty, and those that have ratified it are legally bound to pass on genetic information about the world's 64 most important food crops, including potatoes and wheat — making the information freely available to researchers, plant breeders and farmers. This information might be held in gene banks or in the form of crops growing in a farmer's field, for example.

The treaty also gives financial support to farming communities in the developing world. This means that they can afford to keep growing traditional, more genetically diverse crops instead of abandoning them in favour of modern and improved — but also more uniform — varieties. Maintaining diversity is essential for researchers and plant breeders who are searching for crops that can withstand the effects of climate change or emerging diseases.

Lag time

At a meeting taking place this week in Tunis, Tunisia, the treaty's governing body is expected to award a total of US$250,000 to between four and seven plant-research and conservation projects. For example, one project that applied for funding comes from a farming community in the Peruvian Andes, an area that holds the highest degree of potato diversity in the world. They hope the funding will help them to adapt their growing strategies to the increasing temperatures they are experiencing as a result of climate change.

But the treaty is now facing financial challenges, says Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of its governing board. Its long-term goal is to generate funds for research and conservation projects through income raised from the commercialization of products, such as new crop varieties, which are developed using genetic material obtained through the treaty. Anyone who uses the treaty's genetic material in a patented, commercialized product must agree to give back into a common pot 1.1% of the sales they make on the product.

"There is a lag time of around 10–15 years before a commercial product is developed and the royalties start to flow," says Bhatti.

Everyone needs something from everyone else.
Bert Visser
Centre for Genetic Resources

The treaty also relies on donations from the signatory nations, companies and charities that use it. But so far, only Norway, Spain, Italy and Switzerland have contributed. As a result, the pot currently holds US$500,000, meaning that only a fraction of the 500 proposals (which total US$20 million) can be funded.

Bhatti says the limited funding for research and conservation is "a major concern" for the world's future food security. He will seek agreement from the treaty's governing board at this week's meeting to launch a campaign that aims to raise US$116 million over the next five years.

Global gene pool

Nations that are party to the treaty have made 1.1 million genetic samples available through it, and around 200,000 exchanges of genetic material take place every year — showing it has so far been a success, says Bert Visser, director of the Centre for Genetic Resources in Wageningen, the Netherlands. "The treaty has enabled the creation of a global gene pool," he says.

David Ellis, curator of the Plant Genetic Resources Preservation Program within the US Department of Agriculture's research service, says it has become "standard practice for genetic material to be accessed and exchanged through the treaty".

He adds that it has also been useful in clarifying the terms and conditions under which profits can be made on exchanged material. The United States is a signatory to the treaty, but has not yet ratified it.

No country's research and crop breeding efforts would amount to much without the ability to access and use genetic resources from around the world, Visser says. "Everyone needs something from everyone else," he adds.


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