To improve access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture as well as benefit-sharing from their use, a process to enhance the Multilateral System (MLS) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) was restarted in 2022. In this article, we explain what the MLS is and give an update on how the enhancement process is proceeding.
What is the Multilateral System (MLS) of the ITPGRFA?
The Multilateral System (MLS) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is a global pool of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA), intended to facilitate access to PGRFA and to achieve fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their utilisation. PGRFA may be added to this pool by countries and institutions under the control of those countries, by natural and legal persons in countries, and by international institutes.
The MLS currently does not cover all PGRFA, but a limited set of 35 food crops and 29 forages, which are listed in Annex I of the ITPGRFA. The selection of this set of crops and forages, at the time the ITPGRFA was negotiated, was based on criteria of food security and interdependence and was a compromise between countries advocating the inclusion of all PGRFA and countries favouring the inclusion of only a limited number of crops.
The exchange of PGRFA included in the MLS takes place under a standard contract (the Standard Material Transfer Agreement, SMTA), instead of under the bilateral system of Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) prescribed by the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol. The SMTA contains fixed conditions regarding the use of the material and benefit-sharing. Genetic resources in the MLS accessed under the SMTA can only be used in research, breeding and training for food and agriculture, with other uses explicitly excluded.
The enhancement process
With a view to improve both access to PGRFA and benefit-sharing from their use, an Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group to Enhance the Functioning of the Multilateral System (OEWG/MLS) was established by the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA in 2013.
In June 2019, the OEWG/MLS made a proposal for a package of measures, with the three main components being a revised SMTA, expansion of Annex I, and a Resolution to be agreed upon in the eighth Government Board meeting (GB-8) in 2019. However, during GB-8 the process came to a standstill because no agreement could be reached, particularly with regards to the possible inclusion of digital sequence information/genetic sequence data (DSI/GSD).
In September 2022, the Government Body decided during its ninth meeting (GB-9) to restart the process and the work of the OEWG/MLS, with a view to finalise the enhancement of the MLS by the eleventh meeting of the Governing Body (GB-11) in 2025.
OEWG meeting July 2023
As a first step in the reopened enhancement process, a meeting of the OEWG/MLS was held in July 2023. The main elements discussed were digital sequence information/genetic sequence data (DSI/GSD), amendment (expansion) of the coverage of the MLS (amendment of Annex I), and payment structure and rates. The meeting was primarily focused on the process to be followed and intended for stocktaking of positions, and there were no formal negotiations and decisions. However, it became clear that opinions diverge widely, especially with regards to expansion of the coverage of the MLS.
The follow-up process
Further discussions on the enhancement of the MLS will take place during the tenth meeting of the Government Body (GB-10) of the ITPGRFA, held in Rome from 20 to 24 November 2023. In this meeting a ‘checkpoint report’ on the progress so far will be presented by the chairpersons of the OEWG/MLS.
It is expected that during GB-10 all Contracting Parties and stakeholder groups will be invited to express their commitment to reopen negotiations on the enhancement of the functioning of the MLS, with the negotiations primarily focusing on DSI/GSD, expansion of Annex I, and structure and rates for monetary benefit-sharing payments. If negotiations are resumed, the aim will be to adopt an enhanced Multilateral System at the eleventh meeting Governing Body (GB-11) in 2025.
Link with DSI discussions in the CBD
There is a clear link between the MLS enhancement process and the ongoing negotiations under the CBD on benefit-sharing from the use of DSI on Genetic Resources. In the CBD, Parties are currently developing a multilateral system for DSI, for which they also look at experiences with the MLS of the ITPGRFA. The first meeting of the CBD Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group on Benefit-sharing from the Use of DSI on Genetic Resources will take place in Geneva from 14-18 November 2023. To support the formal CBD and ITPGRFA processes, several informal consultations will take place, involving negotiators, stakeholders, and experts.
For more information, and for sharing your views on the enhancement of the MLS and the DSI discussions in the CBD, you may contact Ms Kim van Seeters (ABS Competent National Authority; firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mr Martin Brink (National Focal Point on ABS; email@example.com).