Two years ago, in September 2015, countries adopted what are known as the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of targets to be achieved by 2030 in areas such as ending hunger and poverty, ensuring the availability of clean water and energy, universal access to education, gender equality, and a sustainable and healthy environment for all. Agriculture holds a key to achieving many of these ambitious targets, especially given that almost half of the earth’s land is given over to producing food, and the sector still employs some 1.3 billion people, close to 40% of the global workforce.
It is imperative that agriculture become more productive, has a smaller environmental footprint, and offers greater and more profitable opportunities for rural employment. Agriculture also needs to provide safe and nutritious food at a lower cost to consumers, especially those living in urban areas, who are set to comprise two-thirds of the total world population by 2050.
Meeting these multiple challenges will not be easy. However, agriculture has one ace up its sleeve and that is the vast diversity of crops and livestock throughout the world, comprising hundreds of thousands of different varieties and landraces. Manipulating this diversity through breeding enables us to create new varieties that, for example, can better withstand drought or high temperatures, tolerate new diseases, or yield produce that is more nutritious, able to survive longer when stored, or can be more easily processed.
The development and adoption of such varieties enables farmers to be more resilient in the face of climate change and produce more, cheaper and healthier food. It also helps underpin the creation of new employment opportunities in the agri-business sector in developing countries; additional jobs that are so badly needed if we are to have any chance of stemming mass human migration.
Promoting and supporting the conservation and use of this crop diversity is a little-known but hugely important global agreement: the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Coming into force in 2004, the International Treaty is now recognized by 144 countries worldwide. It governs the way in which nations protect, provide access to, and use the diversity of their crops, as well as how the many benefits that these activities generate are shared fairly. The International Treaty helps build the capacity of developing countries to conserve and use crop diversity, establishes vital information-sharing mechanisms and promotes the exchange of suitable technologies. It encourages countries to recognize Farmers’ Rights, empowering and rewarding them for their centuries-old activities that have led to the creation and maintenance of the genetic diversity that is at the heart of the International Treaty today.
In return for making this genetic diversity available for use by all, the International Treaty seeks to ensure that adequate and appropriate benefits are channelled to farmers and rural communities. As a mechanism to achieve this, the International Treaty has established what is known as the Benefit-sharing Fund. Payments are made into the Fund by companies that commercialize products derived from the material they have obtained under the International Treaty, and voluntary contributions are provided by governments.
The latter accounts for the bulk of the finance received to date. Since 2009, when the first disbursements were made, some 55 projects have been funded in 61 developing countries. Farmers’ organizations, research institutions and others, including private companies, have been supported in their efforts to help farming communities cope with global challenges.
Activities have included characterizing traditional and wild crop genetic material for its stress resistance levels, selecting and breeding high performing varieties, making improved seeds more widely available to farmers, and training. However, in spite of the undoubted impact of many of these projects – and it has been estimated that more than 700,000 people in developing countries have benefited – they represent only a small drop in the ocean of what is needed.
Thus, in spite of its importance, the International Treaty is now at a crossroads. Funds to support the International Treaty’s vital objectives have, for the most part, been woefully inadequate. New innovative funding mechanisms are urgently needed and the level of resources available for supporting the objectives of the International Treaty needs to increase dramatically. Discussions are underway on how this might be achieved and what modifications are needed to the International Treaty to enable this to happen. The Governing Body of the International Treaty, the member states, are due to meet in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, at the end of October to try to agree on what should be done. This is a critical meeting. The commitment of member governments to support the International Treaty has never been more important, nor has the need for all nations to join in the common effort.
Unless a way forward is found, there is a risk that countries will become less willing to openly share their genetic resources, restricting the progress that can be made in crop improvement. This would not only result in fewer options for farmers in meeting the daunting challenges ahead, but would also severely curtail our ability to build a world in which hunger and malnutrition are a thing of the past, and where people can achieve a living wage at home, without the need to migrate abroad.