High stakes for food security at Tunis meeting

I just returned from Tunis where the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is holding its 3rd Governing Body session. Getting funding for the Treaty and stimulating the free and unimpeded (by seed companies) flow worldwide of crop genetic resources among plant breeders and scientists is an uphill battle, which all those present at the meeting will freely acknowledge.

France and Germany have been particularly obstructionist – partly because of recession at home, partly because they prefer to act bilaterally than multilaterally. Some 120 countries ratified this treaty in 2004, but it still lacks funding for its core functions and the operational costs of the Rome-based secretariat at FAO headquarters. A key sticking point is how to budget contributions – many rich countries have earmarked funds for the Treaty under development assistance, but Jose Esquinas Alcazar points out that it’s an issue of national security.

José "Pepe" Esquinas Alcazar, father of the treaty

Food shortages equal political instability; if a crop virus wipes out the wheat harvest in Europe, plant breeders need to work quickly to come up with a new, hardier variant and be able to access plant genetic resources from all over the world to do this.

“This is money for national development, for national security. The countries need to understand this. There is some mental laziness on this subject,” he said.

Plant genetics is an obscure subject which has little public visibility but it is absolutely vital to the future of our food systems and the way we farm and eat in the future. As Pat Mooney of Canada’s ETC Group told me in the corridors, “You’re not going to have agriculture 50 years from now because of climate change unless we have exchanges of germplasm.”

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

The highlight of the conference for me was seeing Dr Melaku Worede of Ethiopia take the floor. Founder of Ethiopia’s Gene Bank – the first of its kind in Africa, he is a tireless advocate for the importance of on-farm diversity as a strategy to increase and conserve biodiversity. Dr Worede is today a frail, deeply spiritual presence with a tremendous capacity to inspire.

Here is the text of his intervention yesterday – which provoked spontaneous applause from the assembled Plenary of biocrats, plant breeders, NGO activists and crop scientists.

“I’m the international scientific advisor to the Seeds of Survival progamme of USC Canada and the founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, the first of its kind in Africa. At one point in my career I also chaired an FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources.

“Farming communities have always implemented conservation methods. Many species little known to science or industrial technology are already managed by local farmers and indigenous communities. Seed is planted in situ and is frequently exchanged. This accounts for the broad range of adaptability and plasticity in gene materials. Maintenance of diversity by small farm comunities in this way provides wide options for self reliance for food crop production and security, thereby lowering the risk of food shortage. All high-tech conservation methods depend on this.

“More than 1,400 gene banks around the world maintain ex-situ some six million samples of germplasm They distribute hundreds and thousands of germplasm collections to scientists and plant breeders. Most of these crop collections and these gene banks are however in a precarious state. One response to this has been the creation of the (Global Crop Diversity) Trust to provide sustainable funding through an endowment, which is today worth some 150 million dollars to ensure the perpetual conservation of crop germplasm around the world. I wish to congratulate the progress made by the Trust today.

“It is most crucial to place a precondition that funding to support genebanks requires linking in-situ funding conservation of cultivated crop lands and semi-wild species by small farmers and pastoralists and indignenous peoples. Otherwise Africa will suffer unparallelled food shortages and rural poverty already touching one billion people. This is especially urgent in view of the rapidly dwindling but still abundant plant genetic resources, and in view of climate change.”

Here’s a recent interview with Dr Worede from GRAIN.

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