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Report from the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources

Volume 2 Number 7 - December 1996



The 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources (ITC4) met in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996 and was attended by representatives from 150 countries and 54 intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations.

The international technical conference was convened at the request of the governing conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), through Agenda 21.

The conference adopted The Global Plan of Action for The Conservation and Sustainable Utilization for Plant Genetic Resources (GPA) and the Leipzig Declaration. It discussed financing of the Plan and agreed upon mechanisms for monitoring and implementation. The Conference also considered the first Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources

The Global Plan of Action and the Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources were developed under the guidance of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture headed by Dr Cary Fowler.

Country Reports were submitted by 158 countries. In these reports, countries assessed their situation with regard to indigenous plant genetic resources, national conservation activities (ex situ and in situ), in-country uses of plant genetic resources, national goals, policies, programmes and legislation and international collaboration. In addition, countries identified national needs and opportunities, and made specific proposals for the GPA. During the preparations for the conference, FAO established its first "electronic conferences" on the Internet, enabling scientists, NGOs and others to provide technical inputs and discuss numerous matters of relevance to the process.

The Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources was welcomed as "the first comprehensive world-wide assessment of the state of plant genetic resources conservation and use." The report identified the urgent priorities that are addressed in the plan. The report and the plan are two major elements of the FAO Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources.

The Leipzig Declaration commits the governments present to take the necessary steps to implement the GPA. Through the declaration, the conference stressed the need to enlist the widest possible participation in its implementation and reaffirmed that "funds should be made available to finance the implementation, by developing countries and countries with economies in transition, of the GPA." Accordingly, the conference requested that the major multilateral and bilateral funding and development institutions be invited to examine ways and means of supporting the implementation of the plan.

Major Points of the Global Plan of Action

The Global Plan of Action will promote the conservation and sustainable utilization of plant genetic resources, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. It contains 20 priority activities dealing with in situ conservation and development, ex situ conservation, the utilisation of plant genetic resources, and institutions and capacity-building. The plan introduces each activity with a brief assessment of the current situation in that field, spells out objectives, and includes specific agreed recommendations for actions in sections on policy and strategy, capacity-building, research and technology, and administration and coordination.

In Situ Conservation and Development

Natural ecosystems hold important plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA), such as wild relatives of crop plants and wild plants used for food and agriculture. Many are important to the food security of local people but are not always managed sustainably. Many PGRFA located in the world's 8,500 national parks and other protected areas are not safe. The GPA proposes specific management plans for PGRFA strengthening on local participation, including in protected areas. The plan also calls for greater efforts to survey and inventory existing resources, drawing upon local knowledge.

Ex Situ Conservation

Ex situ collections of plant genetic resources are an essential foundation for long-term food security and the sustainability of agriculture. The plan promotes ex situ collections not as mere repositories for genetic material, but as dynamic centres for coordinated conservation and utilisation at national, regional and international levels.

The expansion of ex situ conservation through botanic gardens is a major recommendation of the Global Plan of Action.

Poor storage conditions and the lack of capacity to regenerate deteriorating accessions has put much of the valuable material in many ex situ collections at great risk of loss. The plan therefore calls upon existing ex situ facilities, including those of the CGIAR, to provide space to store the collections of countries that lack their own long-term storage facilities. FAO has prepared a model legal agreement to protect the rights of countries and institutions that provide genetic resources to such facilities.

Institutions and Capacity Building

The plan provides for strengthened training and educational activities, particularly at national level. This includes advanced interdisciplinary study, courses in technical and managerial subjects, and special on-site training for rural women who play an often unrecognized role in developing and maintaining plant genetic resources. The plan also promotes the transfer between countries of appropriate technologies for the improved conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources.

Public information activities are also given high priority in order to generate support for genetic resources work at national and international levels. National programmes need appropriate information materials in local languages. Schools of all types, including specialised agricultural institutions, should be a vehicle to spread a better understanding of the value of plant genetic resources to long term food security.