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In 1983, the FAO established the intergovernmental Commission on Plant Genetic Resources and adopted the non- binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU). The Commission, renamed the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) in 1995, is currently comprised of the 149 member States of the FAO. The Commission and the International Undertaking constitute the main institutional components of the Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which also includes other international instruments and technical mechanisms being developed by the FAO.

At its most recent regular session, held in June 1995, the Commission concentrated on two issues in particular: negotiations for the revision of the International Undertaking (the focus of the first extraordinary session of the Commission in November 1994) and preparations for the Leipzig Conference (the focus of a second extraordinary session of the Commission in April 1996).

THE INTERNATIONAL UNDERTAKING: The International Undertaking, the first comprehensive agreement on PGR, was established in November 1983 as FAO Conference Resolution 9/83. Its objective is to ensure that plant genetic resources — especially species of present or future economic and social importance — are explored, collected, conserved, evaluated, utilized, and made available for plant breeding and other scientific purposes. It is based on the principle that PGR should be “preserved, and to be freely available for use, for the benefit of present and future generations” as part of the “heritage of mankind.” This principle, however, was subsequently subjected to “the sovereignty of States over their plant genetic resources” (Resolution 3/91).

Although a non-binding agreement, the IU was not adopted by consensus since eight developed countries formally recorded reservations. Over the years, through a series of additional interpretive resolutions, the IU has achieved wider acceptability. As of December 1996, 111 countries had adhered to the IU, with Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Malaysia and the US as notable exceptions.

The thirteen years since the IU’s adoption have seen heightened interest in and awareness of the issue of biodiversity, culminating in the entry into force of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993. Advances in biotechnology and developments in related matters concerning intellectual property rights have added urgency, and further complications, to the need to further develop an international regime relating to the management of PGR. Countries are now looking anew at the IU as a possible vehicle for this purpose.

In April 1993, the CGRFA considered the implications of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and the CBD in particular, for the IU. Recognizing that the CBD would play a central role in determining policy on PGR, the CGRFA agreed that the IU should be revised to be in harmony with the Convention. To date, two sessions of the Commission included such negotiations: the First Extraordinary Session held in November 1994 and the Sixth Regular Session held in June 1995. At this last meeting, the Commission asked the Secretariat to prepare a “single consolidated text”, reflecting written submissions by countries. This Third Negotiating Draft (3ND) juxtaposes IU language with CBD language on related provisions.

SECOND EXTRAORDINARY SESSION OF THE CGRFA: The Second Extraordinary Session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA-EX2) was held at FAO Headquarters in Rome from 22-27 April 1996. During this meeting, delegates addressed several issues in preparation for the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources. These included: the first comprehensive state-of-the-world report on plant genetic resources, which was forwarded to the Conference; and a heavily bracketed Global Plan of Action, which was further consolidated by a two-day working group meeting held from 10-12 June in Rome.

ITCPGR-4: The Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources (ITCPGR-4), meeting in Leipzig, Germany from 17-23 June 1996, agreed on an international programme for the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). Representatives of 148 States adopted the Leipzig Declaration, the Conference’s key political statement, and a Global Plan of Action (GPA), the Conference’s main substantive output. Contentious issues, including financing and implementation of the GPA, technology transfer, Farmers’ Rights and access and benefit-sharing, were the subject of ongoing contact group consultations. Their resolution, adopted as a package by the final plenary, represented a careful compromise of strongly held positions. Delegates were also presented with the first comprehensive Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources, and a progress report on the revision of the International Undertaking.

ELEVENTH SESSION OF THE WORKING GROUP: The Eleventh Session of the Working Group (WG-11) of the CGRFA was held at FAO Headquarters from 5-6 December 1996. Although WG-11 did not, as mandated by CGRFA-EX2, prepare a simplified text to serve as a basis for the Commission’s negotiations, it did address the issues of scope, access and benefit-sharing (Farmers’ Rights). Written proposals and papers were submitted by Brazil, France, the US, Canada and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). These served as the basis for further discussions at CGRFA-EX3.

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