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IP/02/765

Brussels, 28 May 2002

European Union will sign a new international treaty on agricultural biodiversity

Commissioner David Byrne has welcomed the decision of the EU's Council of Ministers yesterday that the European Union will sign the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty aims to protect the world's most important agricultural plant species in order to safeguard global food security. The Treaty provides for free access to plant genetic resources for research and breeding. Recipients marketing products arising from that access will have to pay back into the system an equitable share of the monetary and other benefits.

"We must preserve and improve the diversity and quality of the food on offer in the EU"; said David Byrne, Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection. Research and breeding for the improvement and diversification of food production requires access to a wide range of agricultural biodiversity, particularly as fruit and vegetables are concerned. In this respect the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture guarantees access to a wide range of natural resources. An example is the "Brassica" complex, which comprises vegetable crops such as cabbage, rapeseed, mustard, cress, rocket, radish, and turnip, important components of the European cuisine. Therefore it is important for the European Union to become party to the Treaty. An early joint action for simultaneous signature by the European Union and its Member States will give a political signal to other nations to join.

On 3 November 2001 the Conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) approved the Treaty in Rome. The International Treaty will be set up in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It is a major breakthrough because of its legally binding nature and the combination of free access to agricultural plant species with the sharing of commercial benefits of such access.

Owing to the clash of different interests and opinions, the negotiations have been a long and painstaking process. The European Union, represented by the European Commission, and its Member States have contributed to these negotiations. The EU has negotiated constructively in the FAO bodies and has launched various actions to keep and accelerate the progress of the negotiations, through official and informal contacts to all parties involved in the dialogue.

The sharing of commercial and other benefits through the use of genetic resources deriving from developing countries has been a controversial issue in the North-South dialogue. Therefore, the provisions regarding benefit sharing are an essential element of the Treaty and their successful implementation will be the key to the success of the Treaty. The European Union will continue its constructive contribution in the negotiations in the Interim Committee for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The initial suggestion of the European Union was to cover all agricultural crops by a multilateral system under the Treaty. However, the current limited list of crops excludes many important species. The European Union will continue its efforts to take in additional crops. The text of the Commission's proposal on the signature (COM(2002) 197 final), and the text of the Treaty are available on the Internet at:

http://europa.eu/eur-lex/en/com/reg/en_register_151040.html

Background

The first international binding agreement covering biodiversity was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adopted in 1992, did not cover agricultural crops. The parties at this Convention recognised the distinct characteristics and problems related to genetic resources for agricultural research and breeding and the need for specific solutions based on the 1983 International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. One hundred and thirteen countries have adhered to the International Undertaking. In 1994, the FAO initiated inter-governmental negotiations on the revision of the International Undertaking, in order to adopt it as a legally binding agreement, in harmony with the CBD. The new international agreement had to include, in particular:

  • rules for the world-wide conservation of existing plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, to prevent further genetic erosion, and

  • a multilateral system of access to such resources for research and breeding purposes, and of "sharing of benefits" arising from research and breeding with donors of material made available under that system.

The resulting International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was approved by the Conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on 3 November 2002, with 116 favourable votes and two abstentions. There were no votes against.

The Treaty combines policy areas under the responsibility of both the European Union and its Member States. Therefore the European Commission and the EU Member States participated in the negotiations. The mixed competence also requires joint simultaneous action regarding both signature and deposit of the respective instruments of ratification or approval by the European Union and its Member States. The Treaty is open for signature until 4 November 2002. Eleven states have signed so far. It will enter into force when ratified by at least 40 states. The European Union and its Member States intend to give a political signal to other parties through early signature, presumably at the beginning of June 2002, in Rome.

The length of the negotiations reflects the difficulties in reaching agreement on matters related to intellectual property rights, benefit sharing, and the list of crops covered by the Treaty.

The implementation of the benefit-sharing provisions will require additional negotiations. These will presumably start in autumn 2002, in the Interim Committee for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. One of the objectives of the Committee will be to prepare the framework of a standard Material Transfer Agreement.

The European Union intends to use its influence to increase the number of crops included in the Multilateral System under the Treaty. The current list includes 35 food crops and 29 forages. However, this will not be easy to achieve, due to the requirement of "consensus" for all decisions of the future "Governing Body" under the Treaty.


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