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The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources: Its Relevance to Botanic Gardens

Volume 3 Number 5 - December 2000

Brigitte Lalibert├ę, Jan Engels and Cary Fowler

Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) are the diversity contained in traditional varieties, modern cultivars, crop wild relatives and other wild plants used for food, medicine, feed for domestic animals, fibre, clothing, shelter and energy. Major food crops are usually widely distributed around the world and have frequently developed unique characteristics far away from their centre of origin/diversity, due to geographical, climatic and edaphic factors but also due to farming practices which are, in turn, influenced by religions, cultural beliefs, and traditions. There has been a dispersal and exchange of crops since Neolithic times.

Botanic gardens played a major role in introduction of new crops around the world, particularly during the Great Explorations and the opening of communication between the Old and the New World in the 15th century, which lead to an important increase world-wide in the exchange of PGRFA and in a way marked the beginning of ex situ plant conservation. According to BGCI records, over 800 botanic gardens today are involved in germplasm conservation and have important collections of economic species and of rare or endangered species. There is a rapidly increasing awareness of the importance of the economic species (or PGRFA related species) held in botanic gardens collections and conservation is becoming the major objective and justification of botanic gardens. Furthermore, botanic gardens activities have been based on the free exchange of germplasm, traditionally through the Indices Seminum, which has particularly stimulated the collecting and exploration activities.

As modern breeding technologies make it easier to use primitive genetic materials, the demand for wild relatives, farmer-cultivars (landraces), as well as wild species, in breeding for improvement of PGRFA is likely to increase further in the future based on the need to broaden the genetic base of the material used. In fact, agricultural genebanks only hold a limited amount of accessions of wild species. Therefore, resources conserved in botanic gardens may become increasingly valuable for contributing to agricultural development and food security.

International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources

The legally non-binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources was adopted in 1983 by the state members of the intergovernmental FAO Commission on Genetic Resources. The underlying principle of the International Undertaking originally was that plant genetic resources are a heritage of mankind and should be available without restrictions. However, this principle has lost favour, in particular with the recognition of sovereign rights of countries over their own genetic resources, reaffirmed in the CBD. The coming into force of the CBD meant a drastic change from free to regulated access to plant genetic resources. To comply with the CBD, many countries have passed, or are now considering, legislation which effectively restricts access to genetic resources in the name of supporting the CBD’s goal of “facilitating access.”

Delegates involved in drafting the CBD, however, recognized that PGRFA were different from other forms of biodiversity, and formally acknowledged that the status of ex situ collections of PGRFA assembled prior to the coming into force of the CBD was an “outstanding” matter to be consider by FAO. FAO thus initiated the renegotiations of the FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources to bring it into harmony with the CBD and to fashion an agreement which addressed conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing questions in a manner more appropriate to the particular nature of PGRFA. In the ensuing negotiations (which began in 1994), the largely bilateral approach towards access and benefit sharing of the CBD has yielded to support for a multilateral system of exchange of plant genetic resources for at least a defined subset of crops.

Negotiations of the International Undertaking in Harmony with the CBD

The CBD defines the country of origin of genetic resources as the country that possesses the resources in in situ conditions, in turn defined as the conditions where genetic resources exist within ecosystems and natural habitats. In the case of domesticated species, this means the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties. This definition causes major difficulty for PGRFA since the origin of material is nearly impossible to trace back and for each accession there can be more than one distinctive property and thus more than one country of origin. Furthermore, centres of origin and of diversity do not necessarily correspond to the “country of origin” as defined by the CBD. Such “technical” difficulties –recognized in the negotiating process for the CBD – mean that the goals of the CBD will likely be thwarted by emerging bilateral systems constructed to implement the CBD, unless government succeed in agreeing on the framework for a multilateral system of access and benefit sharing in their negotiations on PGRFA at FAO.

Facilitating the Exchange of PGRFA

Any system of exchange of PGRFA must support the continuing efforts of farmers, breeders and policy-makers to achieve these goals. Therefore, any international exchange system should provide the benefits of:

  • access to greater range of germplasm than are available in any one country
  • increased opportunities for developing joint conservation and use strategies
  • facilitate research partnerships
  • access to relevant technologies developed by partners countries
  • access to wider range of information and to provider of information
  • more cost-effective means of exchange of information through shared databases and information systems access to specialized training (IPGRI, 1996)

The spectrum of options for the exchange of genetic resources extends from a strictly bilateral approach to an unstructured informal multilateral approach with several variations in the middle.

During the process of negotiation of the International Undertaking, countries grew to understand the problems and disadvantages of bilateral agreements for the subset of PGRFA. These constraints are mainly related to the issue of the country of origin, the limited capacity of many partners to be able to negotiate favourable terms, much higher transaction costs, and the relatively limited financial benefits that might arise from such arrangements. When genetic resources have been moving around for thousands of years as they have with most agricultural crops, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the distinct characteristics were developed. All countries rely heavily on non-indigenous crops to feed their people. In an open multilateral system, countries “contribute” their genetic resources and in turn have access to those contributed by all other countries. In the absences of such a system, each country will be forced to negotiate acquisition of far more resources than they themselves would have to offer. In a multilateral system, each country is likely to be a net recipient of germplasm; with a bilateral approach, each country will find that it has a net deficit.

Judging from the tone of current negotiations at FAO, the scope of the multilateral system of exchange will likely be limited to 20-40 crops. The most important crops for world food security are likely to be covered. Ironically, more minor crops – crops of lesser importance and with less breeding activity – will be effectively consigned to a bilateral system, though there is little evidence that there is a market for such resources.


The majority of ex situ collections in botanic gardens is in the public domain and have been acquired for the benefit of bona fide users. Therefore the status of ownership of germplasm collections in botanic gardens is not clear. The fact that 80% of the gardens belong to the public sector facilitates but does not resolve the future definition of ownership under the CBD. However, the sovereignty over genetic resources reaffirmed in the CBD raises the question of whether resources can be “nationalised” ex post facto if originally acquired and subsequently distributed with the understanding that they were part of the common heritage. Formally, the CBD affects the status of materials (and access and benefit sharing arrangements) after its coming into force in 1993. It does not reach back into time to bring ex situ collections assembled before that date under its purview. Nevertheless, some governments and NGOs seem to be casting an envious eye towards such collections, and restrictions of transfers of such pre-CBD materials are now being reported. The status of pre-CBD materials and specifically of PGRFA thus needs to be reaffirmed and clarified.. The International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation proposes to treat all genetic resources obtained prior to or after the CBD in similar manner, facilitating and provide access to their collections for bona fide users, and sharing benefits for the common good and to support biodiversity conservation (Wyse Jackson and Sutherland, 2000). It may be that unless specific policies are adopted to ensure that these resources remain in the public domain and are accessible, access will be restricted by national laws. While botanic gardens are harmonising their policies and agreements regarding access to genetic resources in the direction of bilateral agreements, it is important that collections of species which fall within the scope of a multilateral system of exchange (i.e. selected genepools of PGRFA) be accessible without restrictions.

By participating in a multilateral system of exchange, botanic gardens can ensure that this critical subset of PGRFA remains freely available for further improvement, essential conditions to research and development in agriculture. Furthermore, botanic gardens can benefit themselves from a multi-lateral system of exchange as they are important recipients of exotic germplasm and their research activities depend on the introduction of new material for taxonomic studies among other scientific activities.


The terms and conditions of benefit-sharing derived from the use of PGRFA have been a major topic of debate in the context of the International Undertaking. Positions vary greatly, from access to the resources themselves being the main benefit of the multilateral system, to benefit-sharing connected to financing activities for PGRFA conservation, better utilization and development.

A number of studies have suggested that while germplasm is collectively invaluable, it is next to impossible to determine the commercial worth of individual accessions. The monitoring costs of tracking geneflows could exceed the actual financial returns to countries of origin, if they can be identified in the first place (Bragdon & Downes, 1998). The major benefit of a multilateral system may therefore be a funding mechanism for PGRFA conservation and development, through the full implementation of the Global Plan of Action (GPA) for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of PGRFA, adopted at FAO's 4th International Technical Conference, in 1996, in Leipzig, Germany, including new and additional financing. This approach would not be incompatible with mechanisms more closely tied to the for other types of genetic resources not covered under the umbrella of the multilateral system.

The aims of the GPA are to:

  • ensure the conservation of PGRFA as a basis for food security
  • promote sustainable utilization of PGRFA, in order to foster development and to reduce hunger and poverty
  • promote the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources
  • assist countries and institutions to identify priorities for action
  • strengthen existing programmes and enhance institutional capacity

The GPA outlines 20 specific activities in 4 broad categories:

  • in sity conservation and development;
  • ex situ conservation;
  • utilization of plant genetic resources; and
  • institutions and capacity-building.

The GPA is planned to serve as an importnat tool for the implementation of the revised International Undertkaing and the CBD with regards to PGRFA.

Relevance to Botanic Gardens

Botanic gardens' activities are based around the exchange of plant material mainly for research, education and, more recently, conservation. They focus on the conservation of wild species diversity, particularly of resources endemic to particular geographic areas. Furthermore, the majority of botanic gardens holding germplasm for conservation purposes have an important proportion (over 70%) of their collection of species that are rare or endangered and/or contain accessions of major crop genera.

There is a rapidly increasing awareness of the importance of the economic species (or PGRFA related species) held in botanic gardens collections and consequently, conservation is becoming a more important objective and justification of botanic gardens. Botanic gardens can complement the conservation work carried out by agricultural institutions, and also as important partners in the implementation of in situ conservation of wild relatives of crops.

The recently developed International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation calls for botanic gardens to continue to play a major role the conservation of PGRFA. It recommends that botanic gardens give priority to species or taxa that are of local economic importance and provide access to their collections of economic plants to those who would use them to support conservation and sustainable use systems (Wyse Jackson and Sutherland, 2000).

While botanic gardens are harmonising their policies and agreements regarding access to genetic resources, it is important that PGRFA be accessible without restrictions, following a multilateral system of facilitated exchange. The majority of ex situ collections in botanic gardens is in the public domain and has been collected prior to the CBD. As noted above, the status of ownership of germplasm collections in Botanic gardens is not clear. Access to plant genetic resources may now be restricted by national laws, even if those resources have been acquired as “common heritage” and included as such in genebanks or botanic gardens collections. Furthermore, a significant proportion of botanic gardens germplasm collections have been acquired before the CBD and with the intent to be made freely available to all bona fide users. In order to maintain the status of these collections and formalise these agreements, such collections should be included in a multi-lateral system of exchange to ensure that these resources remain in the public domain and accessible.


No single country is self-sufficient when it comes to PGRFA. Botanic gardens in developed and developing countries can benefit from a facilitated system of exchange of plant material. An important proportion of germplasm collections held in botanic gardens would fall into the scope of a multilateral system of exchange base on genera of major crops. Botanic gardens have a responsibility to facilitate the exchange, reintroduction and development of these resources to benefit all but particularly the countries where the resources originated. Botanic gardens will also benefit in gaining access to a greater range of genetic resources for research purposes and have their activities facilitated by unrestricted flow of germplasm. To do so, Botanic gardens should actively participate in, and follow closely negotiations of, the International Undertaking and a multilateral system of exchange and ensure that the important subset of their collection, which coincides with the species/genepools included within the MLS, is accessible without restrictions. Botanic gardens would be key partners in this system, contributing their collections for the benefit of all participants and justifying greater support to the efficient conservation and utilization of their collections.

1.Bragdon, Susan H. and Downes, David R., (1998), Recent Policy Trends and Development Related to the Conservation, Use and Development of Genetic Resources. Issues in Genetic Resources No. 7. IPGRI, Rome, Italy.
2.Fowler, Cary and Smale, Melinda, (2000), Germplasm Flows Between Developing Countries and the CGIAR: an initial assessment (Draft).
3.GFAR/FAO, 2000. Implementing Access and Benefit-Sharing Procedures Under the Convention on Biological Diversity: the dilemma of crop genetic resources and their origins. Rome: Global Forum on Agricultural Research / FAO. 2000
4.IPGRI, (1996). Access to plant genetic resources and the equitable sharing of benefits: a contribution to the debate on systems for the exchange of germplasm. IPGRI, Rome, Italy.
5.Wyse Jackson, P. S. and Sutherland, L. A., (2000), International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, UK.

Editor Extract of the paper presented at the World Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress, Asheville, USA, 26-30 June 2000. Working session on international conventions and agreements