The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) entered into force in June 2004, and deals specifically with plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA).
The core of the ITPGRFA is the Multilateral System (MLS), a defined shared pool of genetic resources comprising many important crops and forages. This is the ITPGRFA’s Access and Benefit-Sharing system. Genetic resources included in the MLS are available for research, breeding and training for food and agriculture purposes. The benefits arising from their use are to be shared through the exchange of information, access to and transfer of technology, capacity-building, and the sharing of the benefits arising from commercialisation. Access is provided on the basis of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) with fixed conditions. The ITPGRFA forms a specialised ABS instrument.
Multilateral System (MLS)
The most important and creative part of the ITPGRFA is the multilateral system (MLS) of Access and Benefit-Sharing. The ITPGRFA creates an international genetic resources commons – the 'multilateral system of Access and Benefit-Sharing' – within which member states (the Contracting Parties), in exercise of their sovereignty, provide facilitated (free or almost free) access to each other's plant genetic resources for research, breeding, conservation and training. The MLS thus provides a framework for sharing resources and benefits between sovereign nations. It applies to 64 major crops and forages, selected on the basis of two criteria: importance for food security and level of interdependence among countries. These crops provide about 80% of the food we derive from plants at a global level. The genetic resources of the MLS are made available for research, breeding and training, and their recipients cannot claim any intellectual property rights or other rights that limit access to these resources, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the MLS.
Article 13.2 of the ITPGRFA states that the “benefits arising from the use, including commercial, of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture under the Multilateral System shall be shared fairly and equitably through the following mechanisms: the exchange of information, access to and transfer of technology, capacity-building, and the sharing of the benefits arising from commercialization”. The MLS regulates that an equitable part of the monetary benefits derived from the use of genetic resources from the MLS should be paid into the benefit-sharing fund of the ITPGRFA; this payment is mandatory in certain cases.
There are very few strings attached to the access to materials within the Multilateral System, and the strings that do exist are there to maintain the spirit of community. For example, recipients cannot acquire intellectual property rights (IPR) that prohibit others from receiving them in the same form from the multilateral system. And if recipients choose to prohibit others from using, for their own research and breeding, any product they develop using materials they got from the commons, they must share a percentage of their sales of that product with the international community through the benefit-sharing fund.
Although the MLS established a common, shared system for international Access and Benefit-Sharing, it in no way restricts the sovereignty of countries over their resources. The preamble to the ITPGRFA explicitly recognises that “in the exercise of their sovereign rights over their plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, states may mutually benefit from the creation of an effective multilateral system for facilitated access to a negotiated selection of these resources and for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use”. The Contracting Parties exercised their sovereignty first by participating in the negotiations of the ITPGRFA and the creation of the MLS, and then by choosing to sign and ratify the treaty.
The ITPGRFA is a specialised instrument for ABS, with its own system: the MLS. There is no conflict between the provisions of the ITPGRFA and those of other ABS instruments: for example, the provisions of the Nagoya Protocol will not apply to genetic resources covered by the ITPGRFA. The exchange of material from the MLS is operationalised through a standard material transfer agreement (SMTA). This is a fixed contract between provider and user for the genetic resources listed in Annex I to the ITPGRFA. It is up to countries to decide whether they want to extend the same contract or its conditions to all PGRFA in their country.
The ITPGRFA establishes a funding strategy to mobilise funds for activities, plans and programmes to support the implementation of the ITPGRFA. The funding strategy includes the monetary benefits paid in accordance with the MLS, as well as the project subsidies from the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The funding strategy includes a benefit-sharing fund that is managed by the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA and to which obligatory and voluntary contributions stemming from the utilisation of genetic materials from the MLS as well as other voluntary financial contributions are made (see Article 13.2 (d) of the ITPGRFA). The funding strategy also involves all other efforts undertaken by the member states to implement the ITPGRFA (see Article 18 of the ITPGRFA).
Under the Benefit-sharing Fund, a project cycle has been initiated allowing the submission, evaluation and granting of project proposals aimed at the conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources in particular by farmers in all countries who conserve and sustainably utilise plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.