Access to, and benefit sharing of plant genetic resources critical to global food and agriculture scenario, say experts

Screenshot of some of the participants of the national webinar, ‘Implementation of Access to Plant Genetic Resources and
Benefit Sharing’. Photo: Rajani K, ICRISAT

Genetic resources are universal and meant to be shared equitably; national biodiversity policy should be framed around this key idea. Experts in plant genetic resources, biodiversity and policy met virtually to discuss how to develop supporting evidence for such policies. CGIAR’s genebanks and their contribution in this area was also highlighted at this webinar, ‘Implementation of Access to Plant Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing (ABS)’ last week in India.

Flagging off the webinar, Dr Kuldeep Singh, Director, ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), set the context of the event saying that although access to genetic resources had been largely streamlined, globally as well as in India, there was still much to be done in terms of true sharing of genetic resources and benefits.

Dr VB Mathur, Chairperson, National Biodiversity Authority, discussed the scope and goals of impending amendments to the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) guidelines that would better address concerns of all relevant stakeholders. Digitalization and increased transparency of the process is a critical step in this direction, he said.

Dr Juan Lucas Restrepo, Director General, Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), named India as one of the frontrunners in putting in guidelines for ABS of germplasm; however, he highlighted the need for a wider availability and accessibility of genetic resources across geographies.

The ICRISAT Genebank conserves 128,155 accessions of 6 mandate crops and 5 small millets, originated from 148 countries.

Dr Trilochan Mohapatra, Secretary, DARE and Director General, ICAR, hailed the discussion as a much-needed one for developing evidence-based recommendations for the Indian government to implement.

Dr RS Paroda, President, Indian Society of Plant Genetic Resources; and Chairperson, TAAS, reiterated the two basic premises for genetic resources. 1. Genetic resources are the heritage of all humankind, and 2. They are freely available for sharing among all. He affirmed that regulations for access to genetic resources should be for the purpose of creating a system of facilitation, rather than a hindrance.

Dr Vania Azevedo, Head, ICRISAT Genebank, presented the experiences of being part of a CGIAR genebank system with respect to ABS related to plant genetic resources related to food and agriculture. Enumerating the huge number of accessions (700,000) stored in CGIAR genebanks across 11 institutes, including ICRISAT, she clarified that CGIAR genebanks:

  • Hold the accessions in trust; do not own them.
  • Conserve the genetic resources for users around the world
  • Meet and even exceed international quality standards
  • Are subject to policy guidance of the international community
  • Provide access to the material for free (or minimal operational cost) for use in food and agriculture
  • Are under contract approved by international community.

The ICRISAT Genebank conserves 128,155 accessions of 6 mandate crops and 5 small millets, originated from 148 countries.

Over 113,000 accessions safely duplicated at Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway.

From the CGIAR’s viewpoint Dr Vania highlighted the treaties and ‘in-trust’ agreements with FAO, which defined the rules of benefit sharing of the material. “CGIAR is very active in implementing and guaranteeing benefit sharing in several ways,” she said. “For example, in the last decade over a million samples have been distributed from various CGIAR Genebanks.” Dr Vania reiterated that redistributing genetic material to users around the world was critical, as “plant genetic resources are of no use if they stay only in freezers or breeding stations.”

“CGIAR fulfills the obligation to share benefits not only by making genebank accessions available, but also the materials developed by breeding programs, and the relevant data generated. It also enables capacity building via frequent short- and medium-term training programs and courses at different levels,” said Dr Vania.

Several other eminent speakers gave their viewpoints on top priorities of plant genetic diversity for authorities to focus on. The overall recommendation was for greater convergence between various regulatory bodies and enhanced consultation with all stakeholders for a more balanced approach.

The webinar was conducted on 27 August 2020 and was chaired by Dr RS Paroda. Dr Mohapatra was the Chief Guest, while Dr Juan Lucas Restrepo was the Guest of Honor.

Click here to watch the video of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTzClNr4wYk

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