Introducing plant genetic resources: the multilateral system of the ITPGRFA, the Joint Programme and the Decision-making tool for the national implementation of the Plant Treaty’s multilateral system

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Ali Traore watches the sky and prays for the clouds to come. He has a little farm in Kaya, in Burkina Faso, and waits for the appropriate time to plant his seeds of sorghum. Rain has been unpredictable and erratic in the last few years, and unless there is enough water soon after planting the seed, he and his family will risk losing the harvest that represents his main source of food and income.

The dry season is being very hot again in Colombia. Amalia Cortés, who produces bean and maize in her small farm not far from Cali, is worried about the impact of high temperatures on the bean plants. If temperatures do not decrease flowers could not develop into seed and her family would end up without the necessary bean harvest.

Rice plantations of Ngoc Minh in the Ca Mau peninsula of Vietnam have not been as productive as usual in the last few years. Researchers from the Vietnamese Academy of Agricultural Sciences have informed her and other farmers within her village that soils in the peninsula have accumulated more and more salt in the last decade, and that rice plants suffer from the increased salinity in water and soils.

Ali, Amalia and Ngoc face problems that are common among farmers around the world, particularly among small-scale farmers in developing countries who have limited access to external inputs to ensure stable crop production. Farmers themselves, researchers and breeders are continuously developing new technologies and methods that can help crops adapt to environmental changes while responding to consumers’ demands for more and better food. Plant genetic resources are a key tool in these efforts. The diversity of species and varieties of cereals, legumes, vegetables and fruits (including the wild relatives of domesticated species) contains a wide range of traits and characteristics that, when combined wisely, can result in varieties that respond better to environmental stresses and that meet consumers’ preferences. The tolerance to drought, heat and salt that Ali, Amalia and Ngoc need can be hidden in the genomes of certain varieties of sorghum, beans and rice. The combined work of geneticists, plant scientists, breeders and farmers can disclose these characteristics and exploit them in new, improved varieties for the benefit of farmers.

To a great extent agricultural production and eventually food security worldwide depend on the availability and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture whose particular characteristics have evolved in a wide range of origins and contexts. Increasing population, environmental challenges derived from climate change and the need for diverse and nutritious diets exacerbate the need to ensure that the diversity of crop species is first maintained and documented, and then made widely available for utilization in plant research, breeding and cultivation.

When countries negotiated the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in the 90s under the auspices of FAO, these are exactly the needs they had in mind. To respond to these needs they designed a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing that embraces the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity and translates them into a system tailored to the particular characteristics of plant genetic resources and the demands of the agricultural sector worldwide.

Through the multilateral system, parties to the Plant Treaty agree to create a global, virtual pool of genetic resources of 64 crops and forages (these are listed in the Plant Treaty’s Annex 1) and to provide facilitated access to these resources to anyone coming from another Treaty country, for the purposes of conservation, training, breeding and research for food and agriculture. Monetary benefits will be shared if the recipients incorporate the genetic resources in new varieties that are commercialized in the market and that are not available to others for research, training, or breeding. Monetary benefit sharing takes place through a Benefit Sharing Fund managed by the Governing Body of the Plant Treaty. This fund is used to support projects for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources in countries that are parties to the Plant Treaty, favoring in particular smallholder farmers in developing countries.

While governments and a wide range of actors involved in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources appreciate the value of the multilateral system for advancing agricultural research and development, there is a general feeling that the multilateral system is underused. Many users of plant genetic resources worldwide still do not facilitate access to germplasm under the terms and conditions of the multilateral system, and the benefit-sharing mechanism created by the system has not been up to the expectations in terms of raising monetary benefits. Governments’ uncertainties and difficulties when implementing the multilateral system is one of the factors that have contributed to this situation.

In the last 10 years, the Treaty Secretariat, FAO and Bioversity International have helped countries to address these uncertainties and difficulties through the creation and implementation of the Joint Programme for Developing Countries on Implementation of the Treaty and its Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-sharing. The Joint Programme involves these three organizations and aims to build the capacities of national governments and relevant institutions within countries so that they can put in place robust mechanisms to comfortably act as providers and users of plant genetic resources under the Treaty’s multilateral system.

Since the entering into force of the Nagoya Protocol in 2014, the Joint Programme has put much emphasis on increasing national capacities to implement the multilateral system of the Treaty in harmony with the Nagoya Protocol, and on ensuring the both conventions are applied in a mutually supportive manner at the national level. This new focus has engaged initiatives and organizations that are very active supporting countries on the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol like the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the GIZ ABS Capacity Building Initiative and the UNDP-GEF Global ABS Project.

The Decision-making Tool for National Implementation of the Plant Treaty’s Multilateral System is one of the recent products of the Joint Programme. It was published by Bioversity International in 2018. It is designed to assist national policy makers and other stakeholders to identify appropriate measures to implement the Plant Treaty’s multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing in their countries. This publication is the result of one decade of experience working in partnership with numerous and diverse countries, which has allowed the tool to take into consideration the existence of numerous different situations and political contexts around the globe.

The decision-making tool is divided into the following eleven sections corresponding to issues that national-level policy actors need to address when implementing the multilateral system in harmony with the Nagoya Protocol:

  1. Who is responsible for promoting and coordinating national implementation?
  2. What is facilitated access to PGRFA under the multilateral system and who has the right to facilitated access?
  3. Who may authorize access to PGRFA under the multilateral system?
  4. What processes and criteria should be followed to consider requests for PGRFA included in the multilateral system?
  5. How to deal with requests for purposes that are (or may be) beyond the scope of the multilateral system?
  6. What PGRFA are automatically included in the multilateral system?
  7. How to encourage voluntary inclusions by natural and legal persons?
  8. How to ensure legal space for the implementation of the multilateral system?
  9. How to address benefit-sharing?
  10. How to deal with reporting obligations regarding transfers and sales?
  11. Who monitors the use of PGRFA under the multilateral system and enforces the multilateral system’s terms and conditions?

Each section is presented in a question-and-answer format. At the end of each section, the authors propose draft ‘baseline’ legal provisions that can be adapted and incorporated into new laws and administrative guides, if and when they are considered to be useful.

Ali, Amalia and Ngoc, the three farmers we named at the beginning of this note, will need much more than this decision-making tool to cope with the challenges they face in their farms. Nevertheless, this tool and the long experience it derives from represent an important contribution to the international, national and local efforts that are taking place for supporting the work of farmers, researchers, breeders and other actors committed to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for a food secure future.


For more resources related to this topic check the Themes section here.

Agustina Rato

Agustina Rato

Web Content and Communications Officer, UNDP – GEF Global ABS Project / United Nations Volunteer Component.


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