The theme for this year’s World Food Day is “Leave No One Behind.” The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) notes that although we have made progress towards building a better world, too many people have been left behind. Paradoxically, while enough food is produced to feed everyone on the planet, millions of people around the world cannot afford a healthy diet, putting them at a high risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. The FAO urges all stakeholders to work together in solidarity to prioritise the right of all people to food, nutrition, peace and equality, to help achieve an inclusive and sustainable future.
To celebrate the crucial contributions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA or Treaty) to sustainable agriculture and global food security, Dr Titilayo Adebola, the International Food Law Course Coordinator and Associate Director, Centre for Commercial Law at the University of Aberdeen discusses contemporary developments in the Treaty with its Secretary, Dr Kent Nnadozie. Over the last two decades, Dr Nnadozie has worked on legal/policy matters and intergovernmental processes related to food, agriculture and the environment. He holds a Doctorate in Law from McGill University, Montreal, Canada, with a focus on international relations and international legal issues related to genetic resources.
The Treaty was adopted by the Thirty-First Session of the Conference of FAO on 3 November 2001. It serves three key global functions. First, it recognises and rewards the enormous contribution of farmers to the diversity of crops that feed the world. Second, it establishes a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials. Third, it ensures that recipients of plant genetic materials for food and agriculture share benefits they derive from the use of these genetic materials.
Titilayo Adebola (TA): How can the provisions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA or Treaty) contribute to the realisation of the 2022 World Food Day Theme “Leave No One Behind”?
Kent Nnadozie (KN): The theme “leave no one behind” is embedded into the objectives of the Treaty. Article 1.1 of the Treaty states that its objectives are the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for sustainable agriculture and food security [emphasis added]. Accordingly, at its core, the Treaty addresses fairness, sustainable agriculture and food security. Article 1.2 of the Treaty further states that its objectives will be attained by closely linking the Treaty to the FAO and CBD.
One of the underpinning philosophies or value propositions of the Treaty is prioritising “equity.” For instance, Article 1.1 of the Treaty highlighted above provides for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. While we utilise and conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, the benefits have to be shared equitably, which effectively translates to “leave no one behind.” To that extent, all our activities and implementation strategies are guided by the underpinning philosophy of “leave no one behind.”
In addition, the selection of the 64 crops and forages in the core system of the Treaty, “the Multilateral System”, was based on their contribution to global food security and interdependence of countries. Acknowledging the interdependence of countries, particularly that no country is self-sufficient, demonstrates the need for the multilateral approach and for everyone to be carried along. We all have common concerns about the loss of biodiversity. We also have common expectations; we expect to feed our growing populations and to adapt to climate change. In sum, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is basis for the Theme of this year’s World Food Day, aligns with the Treaty’s objectives as it seeks to ensure that benefits arising from biodiversity are shared equitably amongst all stakeholders.
TA: The Ninth Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (GB 9 or Session) held in New Delhi, India from 19 to 24 September 2022. Please tell us about it.
KN: GB 9 was one of our most challenging sessions. It could not hold on the original dates we had scheduled; it was postponed several times because of the coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic. Nonetheless, we are delighted that it turned out successfully. There was both substantive and procedural progress made during the Session. Two main highlights were the progress made on farmers rights and the Multilateral System.
During GB 9, there was an in-depth consideration of issues relating to farmers rights. The options for encouraging contracting parties and stakeholders to implement farmers rights was agreed and endorsed by the Governing Body. The options were based on the inventory that was endorsed during the previous session. Importantly, GB 9 agreed that there should be a Global Symposium on Farmers Rights to consider possible future activities around farmers rights.
The Multilateral System
One of the issues that the Treaty has been discussing for the past seven (7) years is how to enhance its Multilateral System. Unfortunately, the Contracting Parties could not reach consensus during the Eight Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (GB 8) in 2019. The negotiation was suspended, without provisions for the continuation of formal negotiations. As such, a notable outcome of GB 9 was the reestablishment of the Working Group to negotiate the enhancement of the Multilateral System. The Working Group is expected to pick up from where they left previously, but also to cover new and emerging issues that will be incorporated or considered in the enhanced Multilateral System, to make it much more responsive to the needs of the stakeholders, while also ensuring that it is agile and robust enough to face future challenges. New and emerging issues will include topical subjects covered in the CBD and the application of new technologies and scientific development such as digital sequence information (DSI). DSI was one of the hotly debated subjects, on which agreement could not be reached and, thus, contributed to the breakdown of the GB 8 negotiations. DSI is also a contentious subject in the CBD. The outcome of the discussions in the CBD is expected to have implications for the discussions of the matter under the Treaty.
What is the relationship between the Treaty and CBD?
The relationship between the Treaty and CBD is constitutional. It is embedded in the text of the Treaty itself.
First, the objectives of the CBD are similar to those of the Treaty. However, the Treaty focuses on plant genetic resources, while the scope of the CBD is broader. The CBD covers inter alia aquatics, animals and forestry. Article 1 of the CBD states in part that “the objectives of the Convention, to be pursued in accordance with its relevant provisions, are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies.” Thus, the Treaty and CBD have shared concerns about the loss of biodiversity, loss of livelihoods, equitable access and benefit-sharing, conservation and sustainable use of biological resources.
Second, the Treaty and CBD collaborate on farmers’ rights. The CBD provides for the protection of traditional knowledge, including those related to plant genetic resources. Article 8 (j) of the CBD states that “each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, subject to its national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of such knowledge, innovations and practices.”
Third, the Treaty and CBD collaborate on the Global Information System. The CBD and Nagoya Protocol have their Clearing House Mechanisms. At the same time, the Treaty has its Global Information System. Both institutions share information about biodiversity and genetic resources. They also use this information and related data to assist both the Treaty and CBD’s Governing Bodies in making informed decisions.
TA: What are the next steps for the ITPGRFA and the Secretariat?
KN: The next three (3) years will be extremely intense for us. The postponement of GB 9 from 2019 to 2022 disrupted our usual cycle. The Governing Body agreed to have its next session in the last quarter of next year. That means we have a shorter turn around period; we have to compress our work schedule for two years into one year. We have to assist and facilitate the processes and meetings of subsidiary bodies, especially the Working Group on the Multilateral System, develop proposals for the Global Symposium on Farmers Rights and build activities in other work tracks, including Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Global Information System and the Multilateral System. Although negotiations will be on-going to enhance the Multilateral System, we have to keep running and strengthening the existing System because it is still in operation. We will continue providing services to the different stakeholders that rely on the Multilateral System for accessing genetic resources and germplasm required to breed new plant varieties. Significantly, we are considering enhancing partnerships with entities that work on our thematic areas. We are also looking to strengthen our collaborations with other conventions, government institutions, academia and youths.
TA: What changes to food and agriculture would you like to see as we celebrate World Food Day?
KN: The global food system needs to be transformed. The current way of producing and consuming food is not sustainable; it has generated immeasurable damage. However, the transformation cannot be piecemeal. A system cannot be improved by only addressing its component parts. A systems approach is required to holistically review the entire system, to make it more efficient and productive. One of the most effective ways to resolve the multifaceted and dynamic issues around food and biodiversity is through multilateral/international cooperation. Any country that thinks it can resolve these issues alone or that remains restrictive in its approach is losing out and compounding the current complexities. Biodiversity and climate know no borders; hunger knows no borders.
Anything that impacts one country or region, impacts the global ecosystem. The droughts experienced in Southern Africa invariably has ripple effects globally. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and reemphasised the common vulnerabilities of all countries. Viruses know no borders. This is also true for pests and diseases. We are all interconnected and interdependent. Hunger and famine also precipitate large-scale migration, armed conflicts and political instability. For these reasons, it is in the interest of all countries to engage in international collaborations and cooperation to resolve the burgeoning food and biodiversity related challenges. The only way we can tackle our common vulnerabilities is by working together to build global systemic resilience. Once any community, country or region is left behind, it becomes a weak link in the chain of resilience.