Animal breeding and genetics –sui generis


The year 2010 is a special year for animal breeding and genetics. The research community is gathering in Leipzig in August at the 9th World Congress of Genetics Applied in Livestock Production. There are also other factors highlighting the year.

Global issues are dominating the discussion in many areas. We hear almost daily about climate change and the efforts to mitigate the harmful effects or stop the development. Although there is almost unanimous agreement about the need to act, it is politically very difficult for countries to commit themselves to a common systematic programme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The negotiation process on climate agreement stems from the same overall concern about environment which led almost two decades ago to the Rio Convention on Biodiversity CBD. The CBD is general in scope and also the genetic variation in plants and animals for food and agriculture form a major component of diversity.

As a response to the continued growth of human population and to the more intensive exploitation of natural resources the CBD crystallised the main goals for sound development. For genetic variation these can be expressed in three pillars: (i) conservation and maintenance of variation, (ii) its sustainable use in breeding programmes and (iii) rights to genetic resources. Since the 1960’s, developing countries have been aware of the potential and rights to their natural resources. The last pillar imposes obligations regarding promotion of access to genetic resources and agreements on sharing the benefits arising from their utilisation. Access and benefit sharing is now commonly shortened to ABS. In principle, the third pillar also covers patenting or protection of investments in research. The year 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. The earlier world summits have committed themselves to achieve a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

How are the CBD principles implemented in the livestock sector? The Global Plan of Action for animal genetic resources was adopted by countries in 2007 under FAO coordination. While its main focus is on the first two pillars of CBD, it also gives a mandate to the FAO to continue working with the member countries on regulations and legal options. The plant sector – in harmony with CBD and as a response to the need to strengthen the development of food security – adopted in 2001 the International Treaty where a multilateral system guarantees open and standardised practices for the exchange of genetic material.

Even before the Treaty there was an international system ‘of its own kind’–sui generis system for the protection of plant varieties.

The year 2010 is a time line set by the CBD to agree the International Regime on ABS of genetic resources in all the sectors. The on-going process towards the Regime is optimistically recapitulated in October or within 8 months. The final meeting is in Nagoya in Japan. In the meantime the expert meetings and working groups have been discussing the main issues and prepared the first drafts of the regime text. Many sectors have expressed the need for specific measures for their domain. The food and agriculture sector has discussed the special nature of its genetic resources. The sector has asked for flexibility to allow for further development of its own international ABS systems.

In the animal sector, breeding material is actively exchanged within and between countries. Most of this exchange takes place amongst the developed countries of the north and from north to south and to some extent within the south. The majority of animal genetic resources is in private ownership. Usually the new owner is able to use or sell the derived genetic material for breeding and production without restrictions. Also the international exchange takes place on a commercial basis. In the poultry and pig sector these may be contracts to retain some rights on the use of offspring of the purchased animals. Usually the commercial breeder protects the ownership indirectly by staying ahead of the competitors. The exchange is very beneficial and currently very little affected by regulatory frameworks other than sanitary matters. The stakeholders are satisfied with the present state and feel that the exchange should not be unduly frustrated by administrative barriers. At the same time, we may need guidelines for exporting animal stock to completely alien production environments. Another area is the traditional livestock-based livelihoods where the management and property rights belong to the whole community. The customary rules would affect the exchange practices in such situations.

In the animal sector, the steps towards possible international regulations on ABS should be developed in collaboration with the relevant organisations, especially FAO. FAO has a good record on negotiating and accommodating tangible results within the framework of the CBD. It is apparent that the animal sector would need a sui generis model for describing and guiding the ownership and exchange practices. The transparent and responsible international exchange of animal genetic resources could be formulated as model clauses or eventually model material transfer agreements. A model agreement may include the following elements: information on the genetic material, including its sanitary status; conditions and costs of transfer; restrictions about the use; and benefit sharing arrangements. The work on ABS issues in the plant sector has also been carried out in close collaboration with breeding organisations. Such an involvement should be fruitful in the animal sector as well.