10:46 PM Apr 30, 1996


Discussions by some 150 governments ended here on the weekend with a group of mostly industrialised and donor countries stifling expectations that financial matters would be resolved when they meet again in Leipzig in Germany in June.

Members of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) spent a week trying to finalise a Global Plan of Action (GPA) for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The GPA -- a draft document that proposes a series of priority activities on the conservation and better use of the world's endangered agricultural diversity -- is expected to be adopted by governments in Leipzig, Germany.

In remarks opening the commission's meeting, FAO's Howard Hjort reminded delegates that plant genetic resources were a key element in global food security.

An accompanying document titled "A Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources", which may also be adopted in Leipzig, paints a disturbing picture of the world's diminishing treasure of plant genetic material.

Until a compromise was reached Friday, formal negotiations had broken down for several hours after the Group of 77 (caucus of developing countries) demanded that industrialised nations show the "political will" necessary to "guarantee" funding for the implementation of the GPA.

"The Group views discussions of financing of the GPA at Leipzig to be premature," Canada's spokesman said on Saturday, reading a statement on behalf of a number of countries including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

The group said it "recognised the importance of establishing a sound process for considering financial implications of the GPA"but said the GPA lacked 'relevant' information to warrant discussion on implementation in Leipzig.

Besides the conflict over funding and funding mechanisms, governments meeting in Leipzig are likely to clash on several other issues. Numerous phrases or paragraphs of the draft GPA have been 'bracketed', to signify disagreement.

Until the brackets have been removed, the quality of the GPA remains uncertain. Other groups including non-governmental organisations concerned with the conservation of plant genetic resources, say they are largely satisfied with the document.

According to Pat Mooney, director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, recognition of farmers' rights or their rights to have access to and control over their genetic resources and livelihoods has been woven into the GPA although not spelt out in explicit terms.

It also recognises the enormous contribution of local communities and farmers to the conservation and development of agricultural diversity and proposes assistance to farmers through the support of on-farm conservation.

Some international agricultural research centres are also happy with the GPA. "It is a good technical plan," said George Ayad of the International Plant Genetic Resource Institute based in Rome. "What it needs now is an operational plan to make it work."

All the delegations which spoke up in Rome had positive remarks along those lines. But Mooney also said there was a "false ring" to their praise.

While the commission may have made progress on the GPA, most members seem to be in no hurry to wrap up work on an accompanying, but still non-legally binding instrument called the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources.

Together with the GPA, the Undertaking forms an integral part of what is called the FAO's Global System on Plant Genetic Resources. Being re-negotiated to harmonise with the Convention of Biological Diversity, the Undertaking raises some politically sensitive issues including the implementation of Farmers' Rights and access to genetic resources.

The Commission is supposed to resume negotiations on the Undertaking when it meets in Rome in September or October.

"Farmers' Rights" was a concept introduced by the FAO almost a decade ago, but has remained without teeth ever since. NGOs argue that any discussion on access, including the GPA, should be closely linked with talks on the implementation of Farmers' Rights.

But according to NGOs, while most countries are dead serious about gaining access to genetic resources, only a handful may be willing to touch Farmers' Rights.

The NGO Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) based in Spain warned that if the concept remained as feeble and non-committal as it is now, it merely justifies maintaining the status quo in which farmers are supposed to give, share and contribute without having any rights to benefit, participate or control.

The uncertainties over the GPA and the lack of progress on the Undertaking have given rise to other concerns. "My fear is that the strategy of the G-77, especially the Latin American group, may have the unintended result of leading this inter-governmental process out of the U.N. system and into the hands of the World Bank," said Mooney.

According to Mooney, contacts between the Bank and the Convention on Biological Diversity without the prior knowledge of the FAO have been prepared in the event the FAO fails to wrap up its work on plant genetic resources by the end of the year.

Because the World Bank sees itself as the protector of gene banks, is controlled by industrialised countries and is not responsive to the concerns of developing countries, Mooney said it is not the best institution to be entrusted with the world's biological diversity.