Philippe Cullet

IELRC Briefing Paper 2003-2

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The international legal regime for the conservation and use of agricultural plant genetic resources has been marked by significant changes over the past few decades. Traditionally, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) were freely exchanged on the basis that PGRFA constituted a common heritage of humankind. As a result, rights over PGRFA could not appropriated by private entities. These principles were reflected in the practice of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and were embodied in the International Undertaking adopted by the FAO Conference in 1983 (FAO Resolution 8/83).

It affirms the principle that plant genetic resources are a heritage of humankind which should be made available without restriction to anyone. This covers not only traditional cultivars and wild species but also varieties developed by scientists in laboratories. The International Undertaking was adopted as a non-binding conference resolution. However, the emphasis on the free availability of PGRFA proved to be unacceptable to some developed countries which already had interests in genetic engineering. Broader acceptance of the International Undertaking was only achieved after the FAO Conference passed interpretative resolutions in 1989 and 1991[1].

 These resolutions affirm the need to balance the rights of formal innovators as breeders of commercial varieties and breeders’ lines on the one hand, with the rights of informal innovators of farmers’ varieties on the other. Resolution 4/89 recognizes that plant breeders’ rights, as provided for in UPOV Convention, are not inconsistent with the Undertaking, and simultaneously recognizes Farmers’ Rights as defined in Resolution 5/89. Resolution 3/91recognizes the sovereign rights of nations over their own genetic resources.

Further revision of the International Undertaking has been prompted by the growing importance of biological resources at the international level. In 1992, Agenda 21 called for the strengthening of the FAO Global System on Plant Genetic Resources, and its adjustment in accordance with the outcome of negotiations on the Biodiversity Convention. Resolution 3 of the Final Act to the Biodiversity Convention recognized that certain matters which the Convention had not addressed such as the issue of access to ex situ collections not acquired in accordance with the Convention, and the realization of Farmers’ Rights, were to be dealt with by the FAO’s Global System on Plant Genetic Resources, of which the International Undertaking was the corner stone. The 1993 FAO Conference provided the framework for the revision of the International Undertaking on these lines in its Resolution 7/93. The negotiations for the revision of the Undertaking in harmony with the Convention began with the First Extraordinary Sessionof the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources in November 1994 and continued until the adoption of the Undertaking as a Treaty on 3 November 2001[2].

The new Undertaking is now known as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA Treaty)[3]. The Treaty was the object of arduous negotiations which led to a final consensus text which was acceptable to all the states present apart from the United States and Japan which abstained from voting.

The overall objectives of the PGRFA Treaty are significantly different from those of the 1983 Undertaking. The Treaty, reflecting the new orientation given by the Biodiversity Convention, emphasizes the conservation of PGRFA, their sustainable use and benefit sharing. The guiding principles for these three objectives are the promotion of sustainable agriculture and food security.

The PGRFA Treaty focuses on issues not addressed in other international treaties such as farmers’ rights but it does not address directly patents or plant breeders’ rights covered in the TRIPS Agreement and the UPOV Convention respectively[4].  The PGRFA Treaty has a number of unique characteristics. Firstly, it is the first treaty providing a legal framework which not only recognizes the need for conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture but also delineates a regime for access and benefit sharing, and in this process provides direct and indirect links to intellectual property right instruments. Secondly, it directly links plant genetic resource conservation, intellectual property rights, sustainable agriculture and food security. This is a novel approach in international law which could potentially have significant repercussions if applied to the management of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Thirdly, the element which remains the distinguishing feature of the PGRFA Treaty in the field of plant variety protection is its focus on farmers’ rights. In fact, the term farmers’ rights is slightly misleading. The PGRFA Treaty gives recognition to farmers’ contribution to conserving and enhancing plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It further gives broad guidelines to states concerning the scope of the rights to be protected under this heading but overall devolves the responsibility for realizing farmers’ rights to member states. This includes the protection of traditional knowledge, farmers’ entitlement to a part of benefit-sharing arrangements and the right to participate in decision-making regarding the management of plant genetic resources. However, the treaty is silent with regard to farmers’ rights over their landraces. In fact, the ‘recognition’ of farmers’ contribution to plant genetic resource conservation and enhancement does not include any property rights. In this context, the only rights that are recognized are the residual rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds.

An important consequence of the Treaty is that guidance concerning the management of CGIAR collections will in the future come from the Treaty’s Governing Body[5]. This is significant because the CGIAR has historically worked on the basis of the sharing of resources and knowledge. In recent years, following the adoption of the TRIPS Agreement in particular, the CGIAR has progressively modified its position with regard to intellectual property rights[6]. New guiding principles on intellectual property were adopted to harmonize CGIAR’s core principle that designated germplasm is held in trust for the world community with the recognition of various forms of property rights, including sovereign rights, farmers’ rights and private rights[7]. In principle, International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs) do not apply intellectual property protection to their designated germplasm and require recipients to observe the same conditions. They also refrain from asserting intellectual property rights over the products of their research. An exception to this rule is made in case the assertion of intellectual property rights facilitates technology transfer or otherwise protects developing countries’ interests. The CGIAR also requires that any intellectual property rights on the IARCs’ output should be assigned to the Centre and not an individual. While the guiding principles generally seek to contain the monopoly elements of intellectual property rights such as patents, plant breeders’ rights are specifically welcomed. Recipients of germplasm can apply for plant breeders’ rights as long as this does not prevent others from using the original materials in their own breeding programmes.

In practice, the PGRFA Treaty is of greater importance for PGRFA covered under the Multilateral System. These include important crops like rice, maize, wheat, cassava, potatos and bananas. In relation to crops covered in the Multilateral System, member states must adopt an integrated approach to the exploration, conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA. Their specific obligations include the need to keep an inventory of PGRFA, promote their collection, promote farmers and local communities’ efforts to manage and conserve on-farm their PGRFA, promote in situ conservation of wild crop relatives and wild plants for food production, and cooperate to promote the development of an efficient and sustainable system of ex situ conservation. Further member states are to take measures to eliminate threats to PGRFA. Alongside conservation obligations, member states must also promote the sustainable use of PGRFA. These include the promotion of agricultural policies that foster the development and maintenance of diverse farming systems; an emphasis on research which enhances and conserves biological diversity by maximizing intra- and inter-specific variation for the benefit of farmers; the promotion of plant breeding efforts which strengthen the capacity to develop varieties particularly adapted to different social, economic and ecological conditions; the promotion of the use of local and locally adapted crops, varieties and underutilised species; and the support to the wider use of diverse varieties and species in on-farm management, conservation and sustainable use of crops.

The main institutional innovation of the PGRFA Treaty is found in the novel scheme devised to regulate access and benefit sharing of PGRFA covered under the Treaty. The Multilateral System is a consequence of the policy reversal which has seen PGRFA pass from the domain of a shared resource to one which is under the sovereignty of states. This is a direct consequence of the link between the Treaty and the Biodiversity Convention which provides for national sovereignty over biological resources. The underlying reason for the inclusion of a system of facilitated access is that the sovereign rights of states over their PGRFA are qualified by the recognition that these resources are a common concern of humankind and that all countries depend largely on PGRFA that originated in other countries. As a result, donor countries have full control over their PGRFA but there are strict limitations on their ability to restrict access to other states.

Under the Multilateral System, a series of crops listed in Annex I which account for most of – but not all – human nutrition are covered by a provision under which member states agree to provide facilitated access. As per the PGRFA Treaty, access is to be provided only for the purpose of utilization and conservation for research, breeding and training for food and agriculture. As a result of the recognition of PGRFA as a common concern, access has to be accorded expeditiously. Member states must also make all available passport data and, subject to applicable law, any other associated available non-confidential descriptive information. Concerning material which is under development by farmers or breeders at the time when access is requested, the Treaty gives the country of origin the right to delay access during the period of development. One of the most difficult part of the Treaty negotiations related to the treatment of intellectual property rights. The compromise solution is that recipients of PGRFA cannot claim intellectual property rights that limit the facilitated access to the PGRFA, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System. Further, PGRFA accessed under the Multilateral System must also be made available to other interested parties by the recipient under the conditions laid out by the Treaty. This provision which stops the appropriation of isolated components from material accessed under the Multilateral System was strongly opposed by some countries which determined that this would stifle innovation. On the other hand, when PGRFA in question are already protected by intellectual property or other property rights, access can only take place in conformity with the treaties regulating the particular kind of property rights. As is the case with some other treaties like the Biosafety Protocol, the PGRFA Treaty refuses to establish a hierarchy between itself and other related treaties, such as intellectual property rights treaties. This leaves the door open for conflicting interpretation at the time of implementation.

The question of access is closely related to that of benefit sharing. In fact, the benefit sharing regime constitutes another part of the bargaining process which seeks to make PGRFA a common concern of humankind. Donors are granted the right to receive some forms of benefits for facilitated access. In fact, the Treaty goes one step further in asserting that benefit sharing is premised on the fact that access to PGRFA constitutes in itself an important benefit for recipient countries. Different types of benefit sharing mechanisms are provided for under the Treaty: These include the exchange of information, access to and transfer of technology, capacity building, and the sharing of the benefits arising from commercialisation. With regard to the sharing of information, the Treaty envisages that member states will, for instance, provide catalogues and inventories, information on technologies, and the results of technical, scientific and socio-economic research. The Treaty provides a specific information system, the Global Information System, which will generally serve to provide all member states with relevant information concerning crops in the Multilateral System. Concerning technology transfer, the Treaty provides only for a general obligation to facilitate access to technologies for the conservation, characterization, evaluation and use of PGRFA which is further qualified by the fact that access to such technologies is subject to applicable property rights. In the case of developing countries, specific mention is made of the fact that even technologies protected by intellectual property rights should be transferred under ‘fair and most favourable terms’, in particular in the case of technologies for use in conservation as well as technologies for the benefit of farmers in developing countries. Beyond information and technology transfers, benefit sharing can take the form of capacity building measures. These include the establishment of programmes for scientific and technical education and training in conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA and the development of facilities for conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA. Finally, the Treaty provides for the sharing of monetary benefits. These include, for instance, the involvement of the private sector in developing countries in research and technology development. Further, the standard Material Transfer Agreement, through which facilitated access will be implemented, will include a requirement that an equitable share of the benefits arising from the commercialisation of product that incorporates material accessed through the Multilateral System will have to be paid to the Trust Account set up under the Treaty. The benefits that arise under the benefit sharing arrangements must be primarily directed to farmers who conserve and sustainably use PGRFA.

The PGRFA Treaty deals with a number of other issues of relevance in the context of the management of plant genetic resources. Importantly, the Treaty specifically addresses the issue of ex situ collections held in trust by the International Agricultural Research Centres of the CGIAR. The Centres, which have signed agreements with the FAO concerning their collections, are now invited to sign new agreements with the Treaty’s Governing Body. These agreements will provide that the collections of the Centres that are part of the Annex I list will be governed by the access provisions of the PGRFA Treaty. This will, however, only cover materials collected after the entry into force of the Treaty and that fall within its scope. The Centres are also put under an obligation to provide preferential treatment to countries that provided material to their gene banks and are not to request any Material Transfer Agreement if a country of origin wants to access its own material. Generally, the Centres recognize the authority of the Governing Body to provide policy guidance relating to their ex situ collections.

The implementation of the PGRFA Treaty will be overseen by the Governing Body, a body comprising all member states. Its functions will generally be to promote the full implementation of the Treaty. This will include the adoption of plans and programmes for the implementation of this Treaty, the establishment of subsidiary bodies as may be necessary and the consideration and adoption of amendments – by consensus – to the Treaty.

Overall, the Treaty which constitutes the outcome of many years of negotiations is noteworthy for providing the first international recognition of farmers’ rights in a binding instrument. The provisions concerning access and benefit sharing, which will constitute the most important part of the Treaty in practice, are largely lacking in specificity. This reflects the difficult balancing of interests that the negotiators had to provide between the interests of developed and developing countries, big private seed companies and small farmers and a number of other actors in between.

  1. Res. 4/89, Agreed Interpretation of the International Undertaking, 29 Nov. 1989, Report of the Conference of FAO, 25th Sess, Rome 11-29 Nov. 1989, Doc. C89/REP and Res. 5/89, Farmers' Rights, 29 Nov. 1989, Report of the Conference of FAO, 25th Sess, Rome 11-29 Nov. 1989, Doc. C89/REP.
  2. Negotiating documents can be found on the web site of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at
  3. International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome, 3 Nov. 2001 [hereafter PGRFA Treaty].
  4. On the relationship between the Treaty and intellectual property right instruments, see, e.g., article 12.3.f of the PGRFA Treaty, above n. 3.
  5. See article 15 of the PGRFA Treaty, above n. 3.
  6. See, e.g., CGIAR, ‘Progress Report on IPR Matters and Proposal for Review of Plant Breeding’, Mid-Term Meeting, 1999, Beijing, CGIAR Doc. MTM/99/20.
  7. See CGIAR, CGIAR Center Statements on Genetic Resources, Intellectual Property Rights, and Biotechnology (Washington, DC: CGIAR, 1999). Individual IARCs have also adopted intellectual property right policies. See, e.g., International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Policy on Intellectual Property (2000).