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Agricultural Biodiversity

 By Patrick Mulvany, ITDG*



Agricultural biodiversity (See footnote 1) is arguably the most vital sub-set of biodiversity, developed through human intervention by countless farmers, herders and fisherfolk over the past 10,000 years. It comprises the varieties, breeds, species and agro-ecosystems that underpin universal food security and provide the genetic material needed for industrial agriculture and biotechnology.


The CBD has been increasing its interest in the conservation, sustainable use, and benefit sharing from the use, of these resources for three reasons. First, there is global recognition of the need to halt genetic erosion. It is estimated that over 75% of crop varieties and 50% of livestock breeds have disappeared from farmers' fields, mainly due to changes in global production and consumption patterns. Secondly, the need to support continued development of varieties and breeds for food security that are adapted to new social, economic, physical including climatic environments in the next millennium, is fully recognised. Thirdly, in recognition that these resources embody farmers' knowledge, innovations and practices and that it is their right to retain communal ownership of them, the CBD wants to ensure the development of satisfactory benefit sharing measures. To give efect to these concerns, the CBD has provided the framework, through Decision III/11, agreed in November 1996, on 'Agricultural Biological Diversity', for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of agricultural biodiversity at all levels and for the control over, access to, and ownership of, these resources and the intellectual property which they contain.


This landmark Decision III/11, to be implemented with the FAO as the lead international organisation, could result, over the next two years, in significant developments in both practical and policy measures. In brief, there could be an agreed Revision of the FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, including a commitment to the full implementation of Farmers' Rights, by the FAO Conference in November 1999 and its acceptance by COP V in 1999/2000 as a Protocol to the Convention. There could be international recognition of the primacy of this and related instruments over the WTO and other trade-related instruments. There could be a funded programme of work, at local national and international levels, globally-coordinated by FAO, to implement the Leipzig Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (June 1996), and other actions arising out of Decision III/11, agreed by both the FAO Conference and COP V.


However, the decisions in the WTO, dominated by ministries of trade and finance, have the possibility of reversing any progress made by the CBD and FAO. The revision of the WTO/TRIPs agreement in 1999 will review, inter alia, the patentability and recognition of other Intellectual Property Rights systems on all life forms and biodiversity-related knowledge. And the renegotiation of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, starting in 1999, could negatively impact on the biological diversity and sustainability of agriculture and food security world-wide. There needs to be a full evaluation of the impact of the current Uruguay round measures before new negotiations start.


Because of its breadth of impact and dependence on human society, agricultural biodiversity should probably become the defining theme of the Convention and the lead implementing agency, the FAO. The Thammasat Action Plan (December 1997) developed by Civil Society Organisations gives strong support to this agenda, especially the defence of sui generis community rights over their genetic resources (See footnote 2). Civil Society Organisations need to work with the CBD and FAO and with the often marginalised national departments or ministries of agriculture and environment, to develop strong well-argued positions that will positively influence the outcome of the WTO negotiations. Universal food security depends on this.


NOTE: for further information on agricultural biodiversity and for links to key organisations, see the UK agricultural biodiversity coalition's UKabc HomePage <> 



 1. Definition of Agricultural Biodiversity

The variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture (including, in the FAO definition, crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries). It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds, etc.) and species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (e.g. soil micro-organisms) and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic), as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems themselves. [Return]


2. Extract from the Thammasat Action Plan (December 1997)

* Demand the revision of TRIPS in order to allow countries to exclude life forms and biodiversity-related knowledge from IPR monopolies under the jurisdiction of WTO.

* Reinforce the defence mechanisms of local communities who are highly vulnerable to unbridled bioprospecting and to the introduction of genetically engineered organisms.

* Support any calls by local communities for a moratorium on bioprospecting, and demand an immediate moratorium on the research, development, release, and transboundary movement of genetically engineered organisms.

* Assert the primacy of international agreements on biodiversity, such as the CBD and FAO instruments, over TRIPS and other trade regimes, for the resolution of these issues.


* Reaffirm the original intent of the CBD for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and prevent the CBD from becoming a mechanism for transnational corporations to trade in biodiversity in the name of "access" and "benefit-sharing".

* Mobilise a strong global movement engaging environmental, trade, agriculture, consumer, labour, health, food security, women's, human rights and all people's organisations in these campaigns. [Return]

Article published in CONNECTIONS, the UNED-UK Newsletter, March 1998

ITDG, Schumacher Centre, Bourton-on Dunsmore, RUGBY, CV23 9QZ, UK

Tel: +44 1788 661100, Fax: +44 1788 661101, Email: 


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