Specialised ABS instruments can help you to minimise the administrative burden while complying with ABS rules. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is a specialised ABS instrument dealing specifically with plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
Specialised international ABS instruments
In addition to the general international instruments that address Access and Benefit-sharing, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD; see the article ‘International instruments on ABS: CBD, Nagoya Protocol and EU regulations’), there are also specialised international ABS instruments. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is a specialised ABS instrument that covers plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) that are used for research, breeding, conservation and training.
The ITPGRFA forms an EU-recognised specialised international ABS instrument. This means there are no obligations related to the EU ABS Regulation (Regulation (EU) 511/2014) when genetic resources are obtained and used in accordance with the ITPGRFA.
In view of the importance of PGRFA for food security and sustainable agriculture, the Conference for the Adoption of the Agreed Text of the CBD in 1992 decided that a specific system needed to be developed for PGRFA. Subsequently, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) drafted and adopted the ITPGRFA, which came into force on 29 June 2004. As of April 2023, the ITPGRFA has 150 Contracting Parties.
The objectives of the ITPGRFA are similar to those of the CBD, but focus on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA): the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA and the sharing of the benefits arising from their use. The definition of PGRFA is: “any genetic material of plant origin of actual or potential value for food and agriculture”. The ITPGRFA confirms the sovereign rights of countries over their genetic resources, but aims to facilitate the exchange of PGRFA through a Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing (MLS).
The Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-Sharing (MLS) of the ITPGRFA
The MLS is a global pool of 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 the institutions under the control of those countries, by natural and legal persons in the contracting parties and by international institutes.
The MLS does not cover all PGRFA, but only a 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 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.
Access to PGRFA in the MLS
The exchange of PGRFA included in the MLS takes place under a standard contract (the Standard Material Transfer Agreement, SMTA), instead of under the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) and Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) prescribed by the CBD. The SMTA contains fixed conditions regarding use and benefit-sharing. Access to materials in the MLS under the SMTA is only possible for their use in research, breeding and training for food and agriculture, with other uses explicitly excluded. This means that if the genetic resource is to be used for other purposes, this may be in scope of the Nagoya Protocol and the EU ABS Regulation.
As the ITPGRFA is an EU-recognised specialised international ABS instrument, there are no obligations related to the EU ABS Regulation when genetic resources included in the MLS are obtained under an SMTA and are used in accordance with the conditions of the SMTA. Additionally, some countries also issue PGRFA not listed in Annex I of the ITPGRFA under the conditions of the SMTA. When you access these genetic resources under the SMTA, you are considered to have exercised due diligence as required by the EU ABS Regulation.
Benefit-sharing from the MLS
The Parties to the ITPGRFA recognise that facilitated access itself is an important benefit, but also underline the importance of other forms of benefit-sharing, such as the exchange of information, technology transfer, capacity building, and the sharing of commercial benefits.
If material received under the SMTA is used to create products (such as new plant varieties) that are not freely available for research and breeding by others, the recipients must pay 0.77% of the sales of those PGRFA (or 0.5% of all sales of PGRFA belonging to the same crop) to an international benefit-sharing fund. This benefit-sharing fund serves to support conservation and sustainable utilisation of PGRFA through the funding of projects in developing countries.
Current MLS developments
Contracting Parties to the ITPGRFA have been discussing expansion of the MLS with other crops than the 64 food crops and forages currently included in Annex I of the ITPGRFA. In addition, they have been considering the idea of creating a subscription system for the MLS to achieve more and earlier monetary beneﬁt-sharing.
However, the Contracting Parties did not reach an agreement so far, which was mainly due to diverging views as to whether access to Digital Sequence Information (DSI) related to PGRFA from the MLS and beneﬁt-sharing from its utilisation should be regulated under the ITPGRFA. The meeting of the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA in October 2022 decided that discussions on the enhancement of the MLS will reopen, taking into account the DSI outcomes of the CBD meetings in December 2022. The first formal meeting to discuss the enhancement of the MLS will take place in July 2023.