BY ZORAIDA PORTILLO
A shortfall in funding is threatening the future of an international treaty on sharing benefits from plant genetic resources, known as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).
The treaty was established in 2005 to improve access to genetic resources of 64 key crops for food and agriculture, and to equitably share the commercial benefits arising from their use.
But the 131 countries that have ratified the ITPGRFA are not meeting the target set out in the 2009-2014 strategic plan for implementing the benefit-sharing fund, and the money expected from the private sector has also not arrived.
The goal was to get US$116 million into the fund by the end of 2014, but so far just US$21.5m has materialised.
The working group set up to explore innovative ways to secure funding for the treaty met in May in Switzerland, but there was no new agreement on how to plug the gap. Instead participants agreed to study further approaches and present these at a meeting at the end of the year.
The fund was to have been financed largely by governments' contributions - up to 85 per cent of the costs - with the rest coming from companies using seeds.
But only eight governments (Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland, plus the European Commission) have contributed, according to a background document for the May meeting. Some major agricultural countries, such as the United States, China and Argentina are yet to ratify the treaty. The expected industry contributions also failed to appear.
"There are no indications that the situation is likely to change substantially by the end of the current strategic plan period, that is, by December 2014," the document adds.
For many participants in the first meeting, this low contribution reflects a lack of confidence in the treaty.
The US$21.5m raised includes a Norwegian contribution of US$648,178 between 2009 and 2014, derived from an initiative that provides 0.1 per cent of the value of seed sales in the country. Norway's government estimates that if all developed countries followed its example, some US$200 million would be collected over ten years.
Edward Hammond, a research associate with the Third World Network, a global forum of international organisations and individuals, who participated in the meeting as civil society observer, tells SciDev.Net that the imperative is to fix the provisions for sharing of benefits first.
He warns that if benefit-sharing does not occur, the principles of the treaty are not being honored, and it will fall into irrelevance.
Hammond says there are other pressing issues, with private industry pushing to expand the number of plants encompassed by the treaty for their own benefit.
"The treaty's benefit-sharing fund must operate to benefit small farmers conserving diversity, and not be influenced by seed industry interests. Seed companies cannot reasonably expect to get more seeds out of the system before they start paying for benefit-sharing," Hammond adds.
The treaty's co-chairs did not respond to requests for a comment on this article.
Link to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Link to the Funding Strategy for the Implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Link to background document of the first meeting of the working group