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In October 2010, an international agreement called the Nagoya Protocol (NP) was completed at the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (http://www.cbd.int/abs/doc/protocol/nagoya-protocol-en.pdf). The Protocol articulates a policy framework for establishing an international regime for the exchange and use of genetic resources, where genetic resources are defined as genetic material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity of actual or potential value (Article 2 of the CBD). A regime would entail the establishment of national, regional or global institutions to regulate how genetic resources can be accessed and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from their use among individuals, states or other entities. While the NP and the CBD are often associated with environmental interests in curbing biopiracy and conserving Amazonian biodiversity, these international agreements are also relevant for agriculture where conservation of genetic diversity, access and fair and equitable benefit sharing are also important.

An access and benefit sharing (ABS) regime would seek to enable access to genetic resources and ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the development of products or processes from the use of the resources. An ABS regime would cover a broad array of activities associated with the exchange and use of genetic resources ranging from research to conservation to use in commercial and non-commercial products and processes. For the livestock sector, it could cover live breeding animals, semen, ova, blood, DNA, microorganisms such as animal or food safety pathogens, as well as animal feed. The new regime enters an already complex institutional environment full of existing norms of access and compensation, standard practices and procedures, formal rules and regulations. Therefore substantial uncertainty exists with respect to its implementation and effects.

For the livestock sector, there are three integrated contexts in which genetic resources are exchanged and used that may be affected by a new ABS regime: market, research, and culture. Within each there are institutional tensions that are of importance for ABS policy makers to consider during implementation. By institutions I mean the rules, regulations, laws, practices, standard procedures or norms of behavior that are specified or understood to govern access and benefit sharing.

Market

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  2. Market
  3. Research
  4. Culture

A unique feature of the livestock sector, as compared to microorganisms for example, is that a large proportion of the genetic resources are privately owned. On the face of it, private ownership would seem to obviate the applicability of the NP as the majority of transactions occur in a market that buyers access through a bid process and the price structure appropriately compensates the seller for the genetic resource.

Nevertheless, the sophistication and transparency of the market varies substantially across nations. To the extent that there are no information problems with the market system, a seller will know the actual value of his animal and will sell it at a price that provides him with a fair and equitable return. When sellers have much less information than buyers, the transaction can be perceived to be inequitable. For example, a buyer from one country may know more about the value of an animal than a seller from a different country. In such a situation, the transaction may not be perceived as fair and equitable and national ABS policy makers may intervene to adjust the imbalance. Similarly, insufficient information may undervalue genetic resources. This can be the case when research has not been done on smaller herds in developing countries, for example, to understand the genetic characteristics or traits that may have adapted to a particular biotic and abiotic situation such as disease or high temperature. Because the market does not have the information, it does not value the animal (genetic resource) as much as it could. In such cases, ABS policy may provide incentives to livestock owners to obtain relevant genetic information that both increases the value of their herds and serves conservation interests.

Research

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  2. Market
  3. Research
  4. Culture

In many countries, livestock owners have established a highly articulated relationship with public sector researchers. For example, university and government researchers receive blood and semen from industry, conduct experiments and DNA work, and provide information and knowledge back to industry. These relationships are strong and a high level of trust has developed among partners over a long period of time. Collaborative and collegial relationships extend across national borders creating a global network of reciprocal exchange and collaboration for research that results in discovery, innovation and the provision of non-market benefits such as new technologies, training, education, and information.

Within the ABS context, basic and applied research may be affected by national efforts to regulate the exchange of genetic materials. Interviews with scientists find that it is increasingly difficult for junior researchers to obtain genetic material and to develop trusted international ties, even at a time when such activity is arguably easier and more important for global food security. Nevertheless, nations are increasingly concerned that allowing genetic resources to cross borders for research may not be fairly compensated or may negatively affect their own economic competitiveness. Considering the extent of public-private sector partnership in research that exists in many nations, this perspective is understandable.

Nevertheless, creating genetic resource fortresses will result in negative consequences that extend beyond the marketplace. An increased lack of willingness to exchange genetic resources for research or to collaborate internationally will have additional impacts on conservation and food security. Less information about genetic variation of livestock in developing countries, for example, will reduce the ability of all stakeholders to recognize the value of agricultural biodiversity. Reduced enthusiasm for cross-national collaboration may also hamper efforts to address critical global food security issues.

Culture

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  2. Market
  3. Research
  4. Culture

Livestock farming is a culturally embedded activity and industry in most if not all nations. As the two articles in this issue on the European local cattle breeds indicate, persistence of a local breed is often strongly connected to farmer recognition of breed desirability and interest by the farmers to continue keeping the breed. National governments and culture groups also identify strongly with particular livestock breeds. It is not clear how cultural norms and practices will affect ABS implementation. It is possible that greater awareness of ABS will foster local initiatives to learn more about livestock genetic diversity. Additionally, cultural considerations could increase pressure on government to intervene in the market with ABS rules or regulations.

With each nation likely taking a different approach to the question of ABS jurisdiction, policy choices are likely to vary widely across countries. In general, there is a fundamental lack of understanding about how institutions that are relatively well established for livestock are to be affected by new institutions set up in the NP. Is there a willingness of developing countries to intervene in the market on fairness grounds because they perceive an imbalance of information or other resources? What about on cultural grounds? Do developed countries recognize that the lack of information about genetic resources in developing countries may result in lower incentives to conserve genetic resources? Will ABS policy create market incentives to sufficiently value agricultural genetic diversity or do governments need to establish new commitments to conservation? Given the institutional partnership between public and private sectors at the national level what should be done to ensure ongoing exchange and use of genetic resources for research? In what ways can the livestock sector identify opportunities and mechanisms that may reduce perceived risk of exchange of genetic resources?

Finally global institutions that currently exist need to better recognize the trade-offs and risks as the ABS begins to be implemented. What role will the UN FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture play in addressing these questions? What guidance can or should they give the livestock sector? How can other global institutions such as the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources be used to address questions and provide guidance on ABS? Finally, in all of this, it is critical to consider the roles, opportunities, needs, and limitations of national and international genebanks for conservation of animal genetic resources. These institutions, although relatively early in their evolution compared to plants, may have an important role to play within the global public-private partnership. More should be done to understand and investigate what appears to be a relatively extensive global agenda.