Global conversation project is vital to protecting our current plant species for future generations

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (I.T. P.G.R.F.A.), popularly known as the International Seed Treaty, is a comprehensive international agreement in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims at guaranteeing food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world's plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (P.G.R.F.A.), as well as the fair and equitable benefit sharing arising from its use. It also recognises Farmers' Rights: to freely access genetic resources, unrestricted by intellectual property rights; to be involved in relevant policy discussions and decision making; and to use, save, sell and exchange seeds, subject to national laws.

However, as Regime Anderson of the farmers' rights project among others, including Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food argued, the interpretation and realisation of farmers' rights is weak and is not the same across all countries. Without a consistent, strong international focus on the realising the rights of farmers who conserve and sustainably use P.G.R.F.A. to save, use, exchange and sell seeds saved on-farm, genetic variety of crops and related agricultural biodiversity will suffer. India, for example, includes an interpretation of farmers' rights in its Plant Variety Protection and Farmers' Rights Act, allowing farmers a restricted right to save and sell seed they have produced on-farm as they always have, even if it contains genes from a protected variety.

The treaty has implemented a Multilateral System (M.L.S.) of access and benefit sharing, among those countries that ratify the treaty, for a list of 64 of some of the most important food and forage crops essential for food security and interdependence. The treaty was negotiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (F.A.O.) Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (C.G.R.F.A.) and since 2006 has its own Governing Body under the aegis of the FAO. The Governing Body is the highest organ of the Treaty as established in Article 19. Composed of representatives of all Contracting Parties, its basic function is to promote the full implementation of the Treaty, including the provision of policy guidance on the implementation of the Treaty. The Governing Body elects its Chairperson and Vice-Chairpersons, in conformity with its Rules of Procedure. They are collectively referred to as the ‘Bureau’.

Some believe the treaty could be an example of responsible global governance for ensuring that plant genetic resources essential for present and future food security can be kept accessible to all farmers and in the public domain. Chapter 7 of the Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (SoWPGR-2) entitled ‘Access to Plant Genetic Resources’, the sharing of benefits arising out of their utilization and the realization of Farmers’ Rights is mainly dedicated to the International Treaty.

Sessions of the Governing Body

The Governing Body met for the first time in Madrid in June 2006. It had a ministerial segment and a ministerial declaration was adopted and included in the Report. The Second Session of the Governing Body was held in Rome in October/November 2007. This meeting discussed the implementation of Farmers' Rights, financial rules; the funding strategy, relationship with the Global Crop Diversity Trust; implementation of the Multilateral System (M.L.S.) for access and benefit-sharing, among other issues.

The Third Session of the Governing Body was held in Tunis in June 2009. This meeting continued the unfinished business of the previous meeting and discussed, among other issues, funding strategy, compliance, sustainable use, the implementation of Farmers' Rights, relationship with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the C.G.R.F.A., implementation of the Multilateral System for access and benefit-sharing.

The Fourth Session of the Governing Body was held in Bali, Indonesia in March 2011. Prior to the Governing Body meeting, Ministers adopted the Bali Declaration on the Treaty that commits them to engage in further enhancing Treaty implementation to help meet the challenges of agricultural biodiversity erosion, food insecurity, extreme poverty and the effects of climate change; and calls upon parties and relevant stakeholders to prioritize activities relevant to the MLS, sustainable use of PGRFA, and Farmers’ Rights, and to mobilize more funds. With the addition of 'compliance' mechanisms and financial rules, these issues took up most negotiating time in the Governing Body meeting. The relationship of the Treaty with the C.G.R.F.A., the C.B.D.'s Nagoya Protocol, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and Biodiversity International were also included in resolutions. Civil Society and especially the International Farmers' Movement, La Via Campesina, played an active role in ensuring a successful outcome.


The treaty was under negotiation for 7 years. A previous voluntary agreement, the I.U. or International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, was adopted in 1983. However, the I.U. was reliant on the principle of genetic resources being the common heritage of humanity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (1993) brought genetic resources under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of national governments. However, the CBD recognised the special and distinctive nature of agricultural genetic resources: they were international crossing countries and continents - their conservation and sustainable use requires distinctive solutions and they were important internationally for food security. Subsequently the IU was renegotiated, to bring it in harmony with the C.B.D., and was renamed as a treaty.

The treaty was approved during the F.A.O. Conference (31st Session resolution 3/2001[17]) on 3 November 2001, with 116 votes and 2 abstentions (USA and Japan). In accordance with its Article 25, it was opened for signatures until 4 November 2002 by all members of F.A.O. or any state member of the United Nations or of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was subject to ratification, acceptance or approval (Article 26), by all members.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was open to accession a year after adoption and once closed to signatures (Article 27), i.e., on 4 November 2002. 77 countries and the European Union had signed the treaty by that date. In accordance with Article 28, the treaty entered into force on the ninetieth day after the deposit of the fortieth instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession, provided that at least twenty instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession have been deposited by Members of FAO. Having reached the required number of instruments in order for the treaty to enter into force on 31 March 2004, on which date 13 instruments (including the European Union) were deposited with the Director-General of F.A.O., the date of entry into force was on 29 June 2004.


Plant genetic resources are essential to a sustainable agriculture and food security. F.A.O. estimates humans have used some 10,000 species for food throughout history. However, only about 120 cultivated species provide around 90% of food requirements and 4 species (Maize, Wheat, Rice and Potatoes) provide about 60% of human dietary energy for the world's population. Of the myriad of varieties of these crops developed by farmers over millennia, which form an important part of agricultural biodiversity, more than 75% have been lost in the past 100 years. Some fear that corporate financial interests might prevent safeguarding of livelihoods, promotion of food security, biodiversity-rich farming under control of local communities, and implementation of Farmers' Rights. Critics say many of the central issues are unresolved or open to interpretation. Some of the points raised are:

1. To what extent will intellectual property rights be allowed on genetic resources in the MLS, within treaty rules: some argue an agreement aiming at open access to genetic resources for food and agriculture should not allow restrictive property rights, and the treaty says in Article 12.3.d that Recipients shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System;

2. To what extent will farmers and communities be allowed to freely use exchange, sell and breed the seeds, and what enforcement procedures will be used by national governments to ensure principles of Farmers' Rights will be respected.

3. The mechanism for dispute settlement under the Third Party Beneficiary and the role of F.A.O.

4. The first group of 11 projects funded by the treaty was announced during the Third Session of the Governing Body in Tunis in June 2009. The projects were funded according to criteria established by the Governing Body including regional balance: 5 from Latin America, 5 from Africa and 1 from Asia. The ranking of the projects was done by a Group of Experts nominated by the 7 regional representatives of the Bureau and the final approval was done by the Bureau on behalf of the Governing Body.

5. While the whole Brassica family (Cruciferae) including all its sub-species and varieties is in the MLS the total number of food crops and forages and their relatives included in the treaty is very limited.

The treaty came into force on 29 June 2004 at which time there were more than 54 ratifications by countries. An article prepared on the occasion of the treaty becoming law is posted at. From the entry into force, countries that previously signed are allowed to ratify the treaty, while countries that did not sign the treaty before it came into force can also accede to it. The instrument of ratification has to be deposited with the Director General of F.A.O.

Participating countries are:

Parties: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, European Union, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Kiribati*, Kuwait, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic*, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Samoa, São Tomé and Príncipe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe (total of 127).

Additional signatories to the Treaty: Argentina, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Malta, Marshall Islands*, Nigeria, Serbia, Swaziland, Thailand, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United States of America (total of 14).

List of crops covered

Even foods that have been part of a culture for centuries often are indigenous to a region on the other side of the world. This global dispersal shows the generosity with which farmers and farming communities have always shared seeds and genetic materials with neighbours or through trade. As people ventured forth, looking for new lands, their seeds were part of their diasporas. As a result, we now live in a world in which not one country can be considered self-sufficient in terms of being able to survive solely on crops indigenous within its borders. The Treaty facilitates the continued open exchange of food crops and their genetic materials. The list of plant genetic material included in the Multilateral System of the Treaty is made of major food crops and forages. The Forages are also divided in legume forages and grass forages. They were selected taking into account the criteria of food security and country interdependence.

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