Do we need a binding treaty for access and benefit-sharing in animal genetic resources?

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After 7 years of negotiation, in November 2001, the FAO Conference adopted an International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGR Treaty). This achievement led to interest in examining the need for a similar instrument for the Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (AnGR). The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the body that oversaw preparation of the PGR Treaty, agreed to leave the issue of a treaty for AnGR open, for consideration once the first Report on the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources was completed.

The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization was adopted in October 2010, at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Article 4 of the Nagoya Protocol provides options for the development of specialized international agreements for specific genetic resources, provided that they are supportive of, and do not run counter to, the CBD and Nagoya Protocol objectives.

This provision has rekindled interest within the livestock sector to examine the need for, and costs and benefits of a legally binding instrument to address access and benefit sharing (or ABS, in short) of AnGR. Consideration of such a possibility raises a number of critical questions: Are current arrangements in the livestock sector adequate and fulfilling the needs of the sector? Or are improved arrangements necessary through updating and substantially broadening existing arrangements, or is a new instrument needed in light of the new policies and laws?

The experience in the crop sector is very helpful here. What were the key driving forces and outcomes of the PGR Treaty and would the animal sector have the same underlining factors and conditions to support proceeding with an international treaty? In the crop sector, genetic improvement in commercial production is achieved through development of new varieties that originate from a number of existing varieties, wild relatives and related species. The ability for long-term storage of seeds of major crop species facilitated wide-spread establishment of ex situ plant genebanks. Most national gene banks are in the public domain; and a substantial number of ex situ collections are held by international institutions. Ensuring access to this genetic material was essential for future crop breeding.

In the livestock sector, genetic progress is achieved through selection within variable populations, based on sophisticated methods to evaluate genetic values of candidate parents of the successive generations. Crossbreeding, leading to the development of synthetic lines or new breeds, is also practised, but it is less important than in plants. Extensive crossbreeding which takes advantage of heterosis effects is widespread in industrial meat and egg production. Technical and operational difficulties in conserving animal germplasm (semen, embryos, oocytes) have resulted in very low levels of activity in ex situ conservation of livestock species. The last FAO survey indicated that national gene banks are fully operational in only 26 out of 90 responding countries, 14 of them in Europe. It appears that at present exchange of genetic material from an ex situ collection is not a major consideration in determining the need for legal arrangements to facilitate access and ensure benefit-sharing of AnGR.

The nature of private ownership of AnGR and a very active and beneficial exchange across borders should also be kept in mind when considering the needs of the sector. Most livestock exchange takes place on the basis of private contracts or informal arrangements between farmers or companies; the price reflects the value of livestock. The owners of the breeding animals (or their genetic material) have the right to use them for further breeding as they wish, unless otherwise specified in the contract. Only a small fraction of AnGR is held in the public domain and can be regulated.

While overall gene flow between developing and developed countries (South-North) is extremely important within the plant sector, in the case of AnGR the most frequent exchange takes place among developed countries. Although the North-South transfers have contributed to enhanced output in livestock production in developing countries, there have been many cases in which exotic breeds have been introduced into production environments that could not support them adequately, leading to negative consequences.

Until recently, local AnGR from the South has only been utilized in exceptional cases in mainstream commercial breeding. However, future challenges may adjust both the current needs for exchange and exchange patterns. The driving forces that could increase the contributions of AnGR from the South to the global livestock production include climate change, emerging livestock diseases, as well as technological developments enabling identification and use of specific genes. Moreover, enhanced ex situ conservation activities are expected, as a number of countries taking part in the FAO survey indicated plans for gene bank development within the next 5 years.

The possible development of an AnGR treaty would certainly benefit from lessons learnt in the plant sector, including development of the Treaty System (Governing Body, Multilateral System and Farmer’s Rights). Another advantage of an AnGR treaty would be the Interlaken Declaration and the Global Plan of Action for AnGR, adopted in 2007. An extensive network of AnGR experts was established as result of preparing these important non-legally binding agreements that are being implemented at the national level.

Negotiation of an international treaty on AnGR would require significant financial resources, which may redirect investments from technical to policy work. Implementation of a legally binding instrument would also require a host institution, a secretariat, and significant administrative costs for convening meetings. Thus, clear analysis of operational costs and benefits is needed before engaging in a long-term and resource-demanding negotiation process. It has also to be taken into account that if no action is taken, the possible future application of an ABS regime in the AnGR sector may be guided by the Nagoya Protocol itself, outside and possibly with limited contribution from the animal breeding community.

One benefit of an AnGR treaty would be the potential to acknowledge Livestock Keeper’s Rights. This is an important issue for some livestock communities, pastoral peoples, and smallholders who would like to have recognition similar to Farmer’s Rights provided within the PGR Treaty. Another potential benefits is that the process of negotiation could generate greater political and public awareness of the roles and values of AnGR and the overall importance of the livestock, possibly leading to greater investments in the sector.

There are also political risks involved. Obstacles to commercial trade in livestock could be a bargaining tactic and the resulting treaty could result in impaired exchange of genetic material, reducing options for food security and rural development. An exchange of genetic material for international research might be also hampered, e.g. by resources required to process access applications.

In summary, the PGR Treaty has generated significant attention on plant genetic resources and resulted in the mobilization of impressive financial resources. Material transfer agreements appear to be working and the gene flow is maintained if not enhanced. There are also significant costs involved in supporting the Treaty. The success of the PGR Treaty raises the question of whether a legally binding instrument for the animal sector could result in similar benefits. Yet we must also ask whether a legally binding instrument is indeed necessary to achieve a similar result, given that the animal sector already has a Global Plan of Action with the accompanying Interlaken Declaration and the recently agreed Funding Strategy. If the benefits of the PGR Treaty could be achieved without a costly and long negotiation process and increased administrative arrangements, this would be ideal.

One possible solution is to develop a voluntary instrument or set of instruments for ABS of AnGR to address any immediate concerns, based on established principles for the responsible use and exchange of AnGR and taking into account all relevant biological, technological, economic, social, environmental and commercial aspects in accordance with the relevant rules of international law. In July, 2011, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture will discuss access and benefit issues and could provide important direction on the next steps to be taken.

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