September 29, 2016

Guest Commentary – Ratification of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

By Stephen Smith, Affiliate Professor, Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University

I was looking at the map of the world and wondering where I might hope to have been born if life was dependent only on the crops domesticated there. Southern Asia looks a good choice with bananas, coconuts, millet, rice, mangos, and tea. Northern Europe is a bit more restricted offering apples, asparagus, clover, cabbage, beet, and oats. Living in North America would provide a very different diet of blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, pumpkins, sunflowers, and grapes.

Today, it is possible to access all these foods and drinks anywhere! The humble Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich is an international cornucopia. The east Mediterranean-central Asia region supplies wheat, lettuce originates from southern and western Europe, tomato from the Andes, and the side of fries also originated from the Andes. Incidentally, bacon comes from pigs with wild relatives in China, Turkey, and Europe.

John Donne (1573-1631) wrote: “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.” In a similar vein, neither agriculture nor horticulture can be successful when practiced on an isolated genetic island.

Every country is dependent on crops that originated elsewhere. Plant breeders must search nationally and internationally for useful genetic diversity to improve yields and provide resistance to drought, heat, floods, and ever evolving populations of pests and diseases. For example, while maize and soybean were originally domesticated in Mexico and China, respectively, both commercial maize production in Mexico and commercial soybean and maize production in China are significantly dependent on varieties bred recently in the United States.

There are huge economic consequences when crop yields are reduced due to inadequate adaptation. For example, the United States annual losses due to crop plant pathogens are estimated at $29 billion. Annual U.S. pesticide costs to fight insect attack are estimated at $15 billion. The se of genetic resources is critical, not only to fight pests and pathogens, but also to provide resistance to drought and heat, and to continue to increase yields with less fertilizer and fuel.

That’s why the Senate’s ratification of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is a significant event. During the past several decades, international global distribution of plant germplasm had become more restricted. After many years of international discussions, an understanding of the multilateral dependencies of all countries on genetic resources for agriculture led to the ITPGRFA.

President George W. Bush signed the Treaty in 2002 and sent it on to the Senate where ratification is required for the U.S. to become a Party. The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) built very broad based support for ratification involving 80 companies and organizations including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Society of Plant Biologists, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Agriculture Assembly Board, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, and the National Farmer’s Union, to name a few.

More than 100 members of ASTA collectively spent years speaking to Senate offices explaining why U.S. farmers and consumers would benefit by expanded and assured access to a greater global source of genetic resources that would be enabled by the Treaty.

Ratification of the International Treaty enables the U.S. to cast off its observer status and be a full Party in the international arena to ensure the conservation and improved use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.






The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

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Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

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