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    History of Global Germplasm Conservation System

    Subjects: Plant Sciences
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    Conservation of plant genetic resources has become an urgent activity as these resources are quickly disappearing, both in the wild as well as on farmers’ fields. In particular crop wild relatives and farmers varieties, also known as landraces, which are of particular interest for plant breeding, are under severe threat of extinction. As crop genetic resources are quite dispersed, regionally and even globally, germplasm conservation efforts require regional and, in many instances, global coordination. Thus, since the 1950s FAO has been actively involved, together with institutions such as IBPGR in the establishment and operation of a global ex situ conservation system, and where possible, effectively linked with in situ and on-farm management activities. This global system has somewhat spontaneously evolved and thus, the current system reflects still strongly the history of its ‘evolution’. To improve the present global system and make it more efficient, it is necessary to analyse and understand the historical and political aspects of its development and ‘evolution’ and this is the focus of the present paper. 

    1. Introduction

    The importance of genetic diversity for evolution and crop improvement have been recognized at least since the initial years of professional plant breeding, particularly fuelled by the discovery of the laws of inheritance by Gregor Mendel. Ironically, the success of these plant breeding efforts has also resulted in a direct threat of losing part of this genetic diversity and, consequently since almost 100 years, activities have been initiated to stop the loss of genetic diversity through the collecting and storage of the genetic resources that contain this diversity in genebanks or to maintain them in farmers’ fields or in nature. This paper reviews the main historical developments that resulted in a global system of conserving the (threatened) genetic resources, systematically and effectively.

    Crop and related genetic diversity underpin the productivity, sustainability, resilience, and adaptive capacity of agricultural systems and, thus, their evolutionary potential [1]. This diversity, contained in the so-called plant genetic resources has played a key role in the developments of agriculture since the first steps towards the domestication of our crop plants, the subsequent diffusion of the domesticates as well as the associated weeds and wild relatives from the centres of domestication into the world and the ongoing improvement and adaptation of the crops to ever changing environments, cultural practices, and human-made and natural threats. The first farmers started to migrate out of the Fertile Crescent to new geographic areas about 10,000 years ago, carrying genetic resources with them [2]. Whereas this process will have caused bottlenecks and thus might have impacted the evolution of these crops, the introduction of new and possibly more genetic diversity, natural mutations as well as natural and human selection have resulted in an enormous diversity of crops and varieties. This traditional crop development process underwent significant changes through rediscovery, around the turn of the 20th century, of the laws of inheritance proposed by Gregor Mendel in 1865 and 1866, which formed the basis for the science of genetics and thus, the birth of scientific plant breeding [3].

    One of the first persons to realize the importance and use the power of genetic diversity in crop improvement was Nicolai Vavilov, a Russian geneticist and a director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad (now the Vavilov Federal Research Centre of Plant Genetic Resources—VIR [4]) who was requested by Lenin, the head of the government of Soviet Russia and later the Soviet Union, to breed plants that could be cultivated in Siberia and thus would contribute to increased food production after the First World War [5]. Collecting about 50,000 samples of crop plants systematically and throughout the world and evaluating them to assess their traits, he realized that the collected genetic diversity was largely confined to restricted areas, the so-called centres of diversity/origin of our crops [6].

    Plant introduction centres that later grew out into genebanks were established in several countries to meet the increasing demand by plant breeders for more diversity. These included the All-Union Institute for Plant Industry in St Petersburg (in 1920), the Commonwealth Potato Collection in Cambridge, UK (before the Second World War), collections for the research programmes of the Rockefeller Foundation in the USA (1943), and The National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA (1958) [7]. The latter became the long-term storage facility for valuable germplasm propagated by seeds from the four regional plant introduction stations and an inter-regional station for potato [7]. During the 1950s and 1960s, several national plant introduction centres/genebanks were established on all continents, plant quarantine regulations were initiated (such as those in West Africa), and plant exploration and collecting started (such as the initiatives in Latin American countries). During the 1940s and 1950s, advanced and well-organized global germplasm collecting missions were coordinated by the Rockefeller Foundation in the USA [7].

    With the increasing successes of plant breeding and the spread of modern and frequently high-yielding varieties, especially of the major food crops, a process of variety and later, even a process of crop replacement started and resulted in significant losses of genetic diversity, a development that was called ‘genetic erosion’ [8]. As early as 1936, Harlan and Martini raised the issue of genetic erosion in a USDA report devoted to barley breeding [9], and Vavilov had noted the increased loss of landraces. Particularly, during the so-called ‘Green Revolution’, which started in the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the success of high-yielding (dwarf) varieties of wheat and rice, together with new agricultural technologies, led to drastic losses of the traditional landraces of these crops, and this triggered concern in organizations such as the European Society for Research and Plant Breeding (EUCARPIA) and FAO [7]. In 1966, the EUCARPIA delegates advised European plant breeding institutes to foster continental collaboration through the establishment of four sub-regional genebanks in what was then West Germany (FAL in Braunschweig, for NW Europe); in East Germany (Gatersleben), Poland (Radzikow), Russia (St Petersburg) and/or others for Central and Eastern Europe; in Italy (Bari, for Southern Europe); and Sweden (Lund, for the Nordic countries) [7]. Gradually, regional and global networking increased, and the contours of a global conservation system became visible.

    2. Historical events and main players

    In this section we will present and analyse the key historical events, the main institutions involved in the development of the global conservation system and at the major political instruments that have been the foundation for the global system as it exists today.

    2.1. The Role of FAO

    During the 1950s and early 1960s, FAO became the major actor in the conservation of plant genetic resources. Besides the World Catalogues of Genetic Stocks for wheat, rice, maize, and barley, they started to publish the FAO Plant Introduction Newsletter and organized technical meetings/conferences (see below). Salient historical events with respect to the global conservation system are summarized in Table 1 and, where applicable, reference to the Table is made in the text. The first meeting was called the ‘Technical Meeting on Plant Exploration and Introduction’ and was held in 1961 (Table 1) [10]. A Panel of Experts on Plant Exploration and Introduction was established in 1965. The panel included visionary scientists such as Sir Otto Frankel (CSIRO, Australia), professor Jack Harlan (University of Illinois, USA), and Professor Jack Hawkes (University of Birmingham, UK); in addition, Ms. Erna Bennett, (FAO, Rome, Italy) served as one of the supporting secretarial staff members of the panel. Reports of the six panel meetings were published between 1968 and 1974 [11]. This panel also played an important role in the planning and steering of the first two International Technical Conferences that the FAO organized in collaboration with their partners [12].

    • The first International Technical Conference was held in 1967 in Rome and was organized by FAO and the International Biological Programme (IBP) under the title ‘Technical Conference on the Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources’ (Table 1) [13]. Some of the major recommendations of the 1967 conference included the need to survey genetic resources in nature and in genebanks and the need for a stronger emphasis on conservation, efficient documentation, and the improved international coordination of PGR activities. It also generated important guidelines for the establishment of a global network for ex situ long-term conservation. It should also be noted that in situ conservation, especially of landraces, was a big issue, but it was given little to no importance compared to ex situ conservation [7][8].
    • In 1971, the second international conference on crop genetic resources was held in Rome, and its proceedings were published in the book Crop Genetic Resources for Today and Tomorrow, which included a plan of action (Table 1) [14]. At this conference, the panel of experts made some major contributions with respect to global conservation plans, including the formulation of basic criteria for the conservation and the use of genetic material. These were: (i) that plant material was to be made available immediately and without restriction to all breeders requesting it and (ii) that genetic variability had to be maintained for future generations in long-term storage under conditions for maximum physical and genetic security. A third important result of the panel was a categorization of ex situ collections: base collections (for long-term conservation), active collections (for research and distribution), and working collections (usually maintained at plant breeding institutions) (for details, see [15]. They also identified regions and crops for priority collecting. These collecting priorities were reformulated during the panel’s last meeting in 1975, with a clear shift from crops to regions [8].
    • The third international conference on crop genetic resources was held in Rome in 1981, jointly organized by FAO, UNEP, and IBPGR (Table 1) [16]. The conference addressed most of the routine genebank operational topics, including sampling, seed storage and viability monitoring, recalcitrant seeds, in vitro conservation and the genetic stability of cultures, principles of germplasm regeneration, in situ conservation, the use of back-garden and genetic reserves for regeneration, the principles and practice of germplasm distribution and exchange, the safe and rapid transfer of plant genetic resources, including a proposal to distribute only germplasm materials completely free from plant pests and pathogens, principles of characterization and evaluation, data capturing and germplasm documentation, and under-exploited and minor crops [16].
    • The fourth technical conference was in the context of the FAO global system for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources and was held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996 (Table 1) [17]. The major outcome of this conference was the Global Plan of Action (see below) and, in addition, ample information on the global conservation system [17].

    The rising concern regarding the genetic erosion of landraces and wild relatives due to modern agriculture, and the more general, increasing need of the agro-industry for a steady flow of new germplasm convinced the members of the FAO conference to give more consideration to a generalist approach to conservation [7]. During the second conference, the availability of new cold-storage techniques was noted, thus allowing long-term ex situ storage to be undertaken, whereas advocated in situ conservation, based on genecological premises, did not materialize until much later. The focus remained on ex situ conservation, despite the arguments for in situ approaches [18].

    It should be noted that during the 1960s, the discussions on PGR in general as well as within FAO were dominated by plant breeders, and this resulted in a close conceptual link between conservation and use. Moreover, germplasm was predominantly stored in industrial countries and was closely tied to plant breeding institutes. During 1967, the FAO unit of Crop Ecology and Genetic Resources was established and thus provided FAO with more in-house specialized expertise.

    Table 1. Historical events of relevance to the establishment and evolution of the global PGRFA conservation, including the international network of base collections.



    Main Outputs and (References)

    Underpinning Principles (Reference)

    Since 1920

    Establishment of first genebanks

    VIR, St. Petersburg (1920); Commonwealth Potato Collection, Cambridge (<2nd World War); research collections by Rockefeller Foundation, USA (1943); Fort Collins, USA (1958) [7]

    Recognition of genetic erosion in landraces by [9]


    Publication Studies on the Origin of Cultivated Plants by N. Vavilov

    Monograph in Bulletin of Applied Botany and Plant-Breeding; [6]

    ‘This monograph, dedicated to the memory of De Candolle, seems to be the most substantial contribution made since his day to the history of our main cultivated plants’ [19].


    Founding of IRRI

    Jointly established by Government of the Philippines’ and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations [20]

    One of the first international genebanks; focus on rice genepool.


    Technical Meeting on Plant Exploration and Introduction, FAO Rome

    Report of the meeting [10]

    Mission-driven approach: conservation and use closely linked, tied to plant breeding, dominance of ex situ collections, mainly in developed countries.


    Establishment of the FAO Panel of Experts on Plant Exploration and Introduction.

    Six meetings and reports of same during period from 1967–1975 [11]

    Formulation of criteria, standards, and procedures for the conservation and use of PGR.


    Formal establishment of CIMMYT

    Joint Mexican—Ford Foundation breeding project in progress since 1943 [21]

    Norman Borlaug awarded Nobel Peace Prize (as wheat breeder) in 1970.


    EUCARPIA meeting

    Recommendation to foster continental collaboration through the establishment of four sub-regional genebanks in Europe [7]

    First indications of establishing a (global) conservation system or network.


    FAO/IBP (first) Technical Conference on Plant Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources, Rome

    Publication of Genetic Resources in Plants—Their Exploration and Conservation [13]

    Need for surveys; concern about genetic erosion of landraces and wild relatives; long-term ex situ collections; guidelines for establishment of global network for ex situ long-term conservation; international collaboration; in situ conservation as a complementary strategy.


    Third Session of the FAO Panel of Experts on Plant Exploration and Introduction, Rome

    Report [18]

    Establishment of collecting priorities by crops (and later) by regions.


    Second FAO Technical Conference on crop genetic resources, Rome, Italy

    Book on Crop Genetic Resources for Today and Tomorrow [14]

    Plan of action agreed; panel of experts formulated basic criteria for conservation and use of genetic material (availability; maintaining genetic variability for the long-term; categorizing ex situ collections: base, active, and working collections.


    FAO/IBP Technical Conference on Genetic Resources, Rome, Italy

    Plan of Action [14]

    Recommendation to establish in situ collections.


    Establishment of IBPGR

    Established as secretariat for its board of trustees, administered by FAO and, technically, as one of the international centres of the CGIAR [22]

    Expected to coordinate global exploration and collecting efforts and to orchestrate a global network of genebanks.


    Third FAO, UNEP and IBPGR Technical Conference on PGR, Rome, Italy

    Report [16]

    Clear focus on routine genebank operations; in vitro and in situ (CWRs) conservation; concerns about NUS.


    22nd Session of the FAO Conference, Rome, Italy

    Adoption of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources; establishment of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) and of the Global System on Plant Genetic Resources [23]

    Shared principles; IU non-legally binding; PGRs are a common heritage of humankind; genetic stocks and breeding lines included; germplasm exchange through a network of genebanks; commission provides oversight to system.


    3rd Regular Session of Commission on GRFA, Rome, Italy

    Call for the development of the International Network of Ex Situ Collections under the Auspices of FAO [24]

    Lack of clarity regarding the legal situation of the ex situ collections.


    25th Session of the FAO Conference, Rome, Italy

    Resolution 4/89: Adoption of an agreed interpretation of the IU; Resolution 5/89: Farmers’ Rights [25]

    Plant breeders’ rights are not inconsistent with IU; recognition of Farmers’ Rights.


    26th Session of the FAO Conference, Rome, Italy

    Resolution 3/91 [26]

    Recognition of the sovereign rights of nations over their PGRFA; agreement on development of 1st State of the World’s PGRFA and Global Plan of Action on PGR.


    UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

    Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (entered into force on 29 December 1993);

    Biodiversity vs. genetic resources; national sovereignty of states over their resources.

    Chapter 14 of Agenda 21

    Call for the strengthening of the FAO Global System on Plant Genetic Resources.

    Chapter 16 of Agenda 21

    Biotechnology can assist in the conservation of biological resources (e.g., ex situ techniques); risk assessment of LMOs, biosafety issues.

    Adoption of Resolution 3 of the Nairobi Final Act [27]

    Recognises matters not addressed by the convention: a. access to existing ex situ collections; b. questions on Farmers’ Rights; requests FAO forum to address these matters.


    1st Extraordinary Session of the CGRFA, Rome

    Start of negotiations for revision of IU; 12 centres of CGIAR sign agreement with FAO, placing their collections under the Auspices of FAO [28])

    CGIAR centres agree to hold the designated germplasm in trust for the benefit of the international community.


    4th International Technical Conference on PGR, Leipzig, Germany

    Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of PGRFA [21]; First Report on the State of the World’s PGRFA [29]

    Recognition of in situ and ex situ approaches; fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of PGRFA.


    31st Session of the FAO Conference, Rome, Italy

    Resolution 3/2001: adoption of the International Treaty (entered into force on 11 September 2004) [30]

    A legally binding agreement; recognition of Farmers’ Rights (a national responsibility); access and benefit-sharing


    Establishment of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

    Endowment fund, the income from which will be used to support the conservation of distinct and important crop diversity in perpetuity through existing institutions [31].

    Coordinates the Genebank Platform (of the CGIAR operated genebanks)


    First meeting of the Governing Body of the ITPGRFA, Madrid, Spain

    Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA); relationship between the Treaty and the Crop Trust; agreement between GB and CGIAR centres (Art. 15) [32].

    SMTA is the legal instrument through which the MLS operates; recognition of the Crop Trust as an ‘essential element’ of the Treaty’s funding strategy; ex situ genebank collections of CGIAR are put under the Treaty (replacing agreement between CG centres and FAO).


    Establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

    Agreement [33].

    Additional safety back-up for long-term ex situ collections.


    12th Regular Session of the CGRFA, Rome, Italy

    Second Report on the State of the World’s PGRFA [34]

    Report developed through a participatory approach with member countries


    143rd Session of the FAO Council, Rome, Italy

    Second Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of PGRFA [35]

    Need for a roadmap on climate change and genetic resources for food and agriculture

    2.2. The Establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR)

    During a meeting of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the CGIAR in Beltsville, USA, a group of invited external experts, including several members of the FAO panel of experts, presented an ambitious plan to establish a world network of genetic resources centres [36]. This plan consisted of four elements. The first one was to establish a coordinating centre (to become IBPGR); the second one was to stimulate the establishment of genebanks in already existing international centres in developing countries (i.e., IRRI, established in 1960; CIMMYT (1966); CIAT (1967); and IITA (1968). The third element was to establish genebanks in new international centres (WARDA, 1971; CIP, 1971; and ICRISAT, 1972). Soon thereafter, the ILCA was established in 1974, and ICARDA was established in 1976. The fourth element was the establishment of new ‘regional’ centres in the Vavilovian centres for crop diversity. The establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) took place in 1974, as a secretariat for its board of trustees, administered by FAO and technically as one of the international institutes of the CGIAR. It was expected to coordinate global exploration and collecting efforts and to orchestrate a global network of genebanks (see also the details of this international undertaking below). Its main task was formulated as ‘to promote and assist in the worldwide effort to collect and conserve the plant germplasm needed for future research and production[36].

    The main achievements of IBPGR and its successor institute IPGRI, particularly those related to long-term conservation and the global conservation system, are updated from a list in [8] and include:

    1. Organization of collecting missions, partly using consultants in addition to its own staff and through contracts with national (selected) genebanks (for details, see IBPGR Annual Reports, e.g., [37]; for an overview: [38][39].
    2. Support for national and regional PGR programmes, predominantly in developing countries with the establishment of conservation facilities, documentation systems, and capacity building/training [37].
    3. Establishment of regional and global PGR networks with national programmes as principal stakeholders as well as regional and global crop networks, frequently with and through CGIAR centres and their leading roles in crop specific conservation and breeding, thus trying to ensure a close link between conservation and use. The European Cooperative Program for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR), formerly the ‘European Cooperative Programme for Crop Genetic Resources Networks’—ECP/GR), was founded in 1980 on the basis of the recommendations of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Genebank Committee of the European Association for Research on Plant Breeding (EUCARPIA); its secretariat was hosted by IBPGR [40].
    4. The establishment of an international network of base collections in 52 selected genebanks located in almost 40 countries across all continents for the long-term conservation of crops or crop groups, including 80 genera and approximately 250 species [41], and the so-called Registry of Base Collections containing a total of 144,000 accessions [39].
    5. Support for an international MSc course in the conservation and use of PGR at the University of Birmingham and the organization of training courses [37].
    6. Establishment of a digitalized information system for genebank documentation and germplasm management.
    7. Initiating, coordinating, and/or conducting plant genetic resource conservation and use research and publishing the results and procedures.
    8. More recently, the successor institutes of IBPGR (IPGRI and Bioversity International), especially after their administrative separation from FAO, played an active role in developing legal and policy proposals and acted as the CGIAR representative in international meetings and activities.

    2.3. The International Undertaking (IU)

    The International Undertaking (IU) was established by the FAO Commission on PGR in 1983 as a non-binding intergovernmental agreement to promote the conservation, exchange, and use of plant genetic resources [23]. Its objective was to ensure that plant genetic resources of economic and/or social interest, particularly for agriculture, would be explored, preserved, evaluated, and made available for plant breeding and scientific purposes. The Undertaking was based on the universally accepted principle that plant genetic resources are a heritage of mankind and, consequently, should be available without restriction. It defined ‘plant genetic resources as the reproductive or vegetative propagating material of the following categories of plants: (i) cultivated varieties (cultivars) in current use and newly developed varieties; (ii) obsolete cultivars; (iii) primitive cultivars (landraces); (iv) wild and weedy species, near relatives of cultivated varieties; (v) special genetic stocks (including elite and current breeder lines and mutants). It defined ‘base collection of plant genetic resourcesas a collection of seed stock or vegetative propagating material (ranging from tissue cultures to whole plants) held for long-term security in order to preserve the genetic variation for scientific purposes and as a basis for plant breeding; ‘active collection was defined as a collection which complements a base collection, and is a collection from which seed samples are drawn for distribution, exchange and other purposes such as multiplication and evaluation’, and ‘centrewas defined as an institution holding a base or an active collection of plant genetic resources [42].

    Furthermore, the IU foresaw the development of a global system as to ensure that (Article 7.1):

    1. A well-coordinated international network of national, regional, and international genebanks, including the international network of base collections, would develop. The unrestricted availability of materials included in the active and base collections of such a network was assumed.
    2. Through the progressive growth of the network, a comprehensive coverage of species and regions was aspired, and an adequate safety duplication of the germplasm was involved.
    3. The exploration, collection, conservation, maintenance, rejuvenation, evaluation, and exchange of plant genetic resources should be conducted by the genebanks in accordance with scientific standards.
    4. Adequate funding should be provided.
    5. A global information system should be developed.
    6. Genebanks should give an early warning to the FAO in the case of hazards that threaten the efficient maintenance of the collection.
    7. IBPGR is expected to liaise with FAO while conducting its programme of work aiming at building institutional and human capacity within developing countries for the development and distribution of improved crop varieties.

    Article 7 of the IU on International Arrangements addresses aspects of the global system and access to germplasm in the base collections. Countries are invited to notify the FAO in case their base collections are to be recognized as part of the international network of base collections. The participating genebanks are expected to make the materials in these base collections available to the participants in the IU for the purposes of scientific research, plant breeding, or conservation, free of charge and based on mutual exchange or mutually agreed terms [42].

    The IU was replaced by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources in 2002 (see further below).

    Another component of the global system is the International Code of Conduct for Plant Germplasm Collecting and Transfer [43]. It was adopted by the FAO Conference at its 27th session in 1993. The voluntary code aims to promote the rational collecting and sustainable use of genetic resources to prevent genetic erosion and to protect the interests of both the germplasm collectors and donors. It is based on the principle of national sovereignty over PGR and is in harmony with the CBD [43].

    2.4. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

    The negotiation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in the eighties and early nineties, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme [44], did result in drastic changes with respect to the conservation and use of PGRFA. Besides creating a general, globally, and legally binding framework for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the CBD, which entered into force in 1993, required that access to valuable biological resources must be conducted on ‘mutually agreed terms’ and is subject to ‘prior informed consent’ of the country of origin. The national sovereignty of states over biodiversity within their borders was recognized as a key principle in the CBD, and consequently, this became the ‘driving force’ in the thinking and approaches to the negotiations and future developments. Besides the fact that states were expected to ‘look after their own biological resources and conserve them, whenever possible in their own country’, this also caused a strong incentive for countries to favour bilateral rather than multilateral arrangements for the exchange of genetic resources.

    From an agricultural perspective, it should be noted that the negotiations of the CBD were strongly influenced by environmentalists and nature conservationists and, consequently, a bias towards wild (i.e., non-domesticated and non-agricultural) plant and animal species could be observed [45]. In fact, agriculturalists were hardly present in the negotiations, and it was only through a separate resolution (Resolution 3 of the Nairobi Final Act) [26] that the FAO was asked to address two important but unresolved agricultural genetic resources issues, i.e., the question of Farmers’ Rights and the need to address the legal status of existing genetic resource collections established prior to 1993 [46].

    The negotiation process of the CBD caused a dramatic shift concerning the overall conservation approach, i.e., from a rather technologically driven ex situ conservation approach (‘putting the germplasm safely away for the future’), towards a much more people-centred conservation, with a strong emphasis on in situ and on-farm conservation and sustainable use efforts. Alongside this, due attention was being paid to participatory research (and conservation) activities to recognize the important role of local communities in the management of and their dependency on biodiversity. This also led to the recognition of traditional and indigenous knowledge to be an important component of biodiversity that needs to be collected and/or conserved. The importance of technology for the conservation and use of genetic resources should be recognized as well as the provision of access to such ‘enabling’ technologies. These aspects facilitated (and required) a much closer link between conservation and development and led to a greater participation of local communities and subsistence farmers in conservation and use related activities. It is against this background that the access and benefit-sharing guidelines were developed and agreed upon in 2002 within the framework of the CBD by an Ad Hoc Open Ended Working Group on Access and Benefit-Sharing [47] that eventually, in 2010, resulted in the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS), which entered into force in 2014 [48]. It is a supplementary agreement to the CBD convention of 1992 and aims at the implementation of one of the three objectives of the CBD: the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity [48]. Its rather strong focus on wild species and the bureaucracy involved to apply the protocol have resulted in concerns that the added bureaucracy and legislation could be damaging to the monitoring and collecting of biodiversity, to conservation, and to research, because the protocol severely limits access to genetic resources.

    The CBD recognizes the application of intellectual property rights (IPRs) on biological materials as a means of protecting inventions and stimulating innovation. This led to a further expansion of the scope and/or application of IPRs, especially patents and plant breeder rights (PBRs), in agricultural research and plant breeding. Due to concerns that the development and use of genetically modified varieties could cause a threat to the environment and its biological resources, a legal framework on biosafety aspects was demanded, and thus, the so-called Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was developed and came into force in 2003 as a legal framework for biosafety legislation and is yet another supplementary agreement of the CBD [49].

    At present, the negotiation process on the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework is ongoing for its adoption during the forthcoming meeting later in 2021 in Kunming, China [50].

    2.5. Global Plan of Action (GPA)

    The first Global Plan of Action (GPAI) for conserving and using crop diversity was adopted in 1996 by 150 countries [17]. The GPAI called for a rational global conservation system based on the principles of effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency. The Second Global Plan of Action (GPAII) reiterated that call and provided a strategic framework for the conservation and the sustainable use of plant genetic diversity. It was adopted by the FAO Council in November 2011 and reaffirmed the commitment of governments to the promotion of plant genetic resources as essential components of food security through sustainable agriculture in the face of climate change (Table 1) [35]. It is a rolling action plan and is based on the findings of the Second Report on the State of the World’s PGRFA [34] and inputs from a series of regional consultations and from experts. The GPAs are a supporting component of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture [51].

    The GPAII consists of four main groups of priority activities, i.e., in situ conservation and management, ex situ conservation, sustainable use, and building sustainable institutional and human capacities [35]. The in situ conservation group of four priority activities comprises 1. surveying and inventorying PGRFA; 2. supporting on-farm management and improvement of PGRFA; 3. assisting farmers in disaster situations to restore crop systems; and 4. promoting in situ conservation and management of crop wild relatives and wild food plants. The ex situ group of priority activities includes 5. the targeted collecting of PGRFA; 6. sustaining and expanding ex situ conservation; and 7. regenerating and multiplying ex situ accessions. The sustainable use priority activities consist of 8. the characterization and evaluation and development of subsets of collections to facilitate use; 9. plant breeding, genetic enhancement, and base broadening; 10. promoting the diversification of crop production and broadening crop diversity; 11. the development and commercialization of varieties, primarily of farmer varieties/landraces and underutilized species; and 12. supporting seed production and distribution. The set of capacity building activities comprises 13. building and strengthening national programmes; 14. promoting and strengthening networks for PGRFA; 15. constructing and strengthening comprehensive information systems; 16. developing and strengthening systems for monitoring and safeguarding genetic diversity and minimizing genetic erosion of PGRFA; 17. building and strengthening human resource capacity; and 18. promoting and strengthening public awareness of the importance of PGRFA [35].

    The GPAII does not contain specific activities related to long-term conservation and the global system, but several comments and supporting actions are referred to throughout the text, e.g., that the network of international ex situ collections of major crops played an important role in the negotiations of the International Treaty. These collections continue to form the backbone of the global system. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault now provides an additional level of security to existing ex situ collections [33]. Furthermore, the development of a global portal of accession-level data and the imminent release of an advanced gene bank information management system (recently released and called GLIS) are additional important steps towards the strengthening and more effective operation of a global system for ex situ conservation [52]. Enhancing capacity at all levels is a key strategy to implement the priority activities of the GPA, including those related to long-term conservation, sustainable use (i.e., plant breeding, genetic enhancement, and base-broadening efforts) and the global system. Whereas countries have national sovereignty over and responsibility for the PGRFA they conserve, there is nevertheless a need for the greater rationalization of the global system for ex situ collections. The fostering of partnerships and synergies among countries is a requirement to develop a more rational and cost-effective global system. Furthermore, the GPAII plays an important role in the international policy framework for world food security and as a supporting component of the International Treaty. It contributes to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and aids in the implementation of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity [53].

    2.6. International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)

    The International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA or Treaty) aims to recognize the enormous contribution of farmers to the diversity of crops that feed the world; it aims to establish a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders, and scientists with access to plant genetic materials; and it aims to ensure that recipients share the benefits they derive from the use of these genetic materials with the countries where they originated [51]. The preparations and negotiations of the revision of the IU were initiated in 1994 and were concluded in 2001 by the adoption of the International Treaty. It encompasses all PGRFA and came into force in 2004 [51].

    Through the Treaty, countries agree to promote the development of national integrated approaches to the exploration, collecting, characterization, evaluation, conservation, and documentation of their PGRFA, including the development of national surveys and inventories [51]. They also agree to develop and maintain appropriate policies and legal measures to promote the sustainable use of these resources, including on-farm management, strengthening research, promoting plant-breeding efforts, broadening the genetic bases of crops, and expanding the use of locally adapted crops and varieties and underutilized species. These activities would be supported, as appropriate, by international cooperation provided in the Treaty.

    The most important part of the ITPGRFA is the establishment of the so-called Multilateral System (MLS) of Access and Benefit-Sharing [54]. The MLS applies to 64 genera, including the major food crops and forages, which were agreed upon on the basis of two criteria: their importance for food security and the level of interdependence among countries. At the global level, these crops provide approximately 80% of the food that is produced by plants. Through the MLS, sovereign nations have agreed to share resources and benefits. The genetic resources included in the MLS will be made available for research, breeding, and training, and their recipients should not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit access to these resources or their genetic parts or components in the form received from the MLS [55]. The peculiarities of PGRFA compared to biodiversity in general, e.g., the difficulty of applying the country-of-origin concept, the strong interdependency of nations on genetic diversity for crop improvement, and the critical role of these resources in traditional agriculture and in food security, formed the basis for the establishment of a multilateral rather than a bilateral system for their exchange [56]. This thinking eventually led to the establishment of the MLS, which keeps the genetic resources of the Annex 1 listed species that are formally in the public domain and under governmental control and facilitates easy access to and the use of these resources [45]. It should be noted that the diversity of the crop species or the groups of species listed in Annex I is rather limited and, for instance, the majority of the vegetable genetic resources conserved by the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, which consist of a large proportion of indigenous vegetables that are critically important for the diversification of cropping systems, nutritional security, and livelihoods [57], are not included in Annex 1. Discussions on the extension of the Annex 1 list have been ongoing for several yes, but no final decision has been reached.

    The benefits arising from the use of materials from the MLS shall be shared fairly and equitably through the exchange of information, access to and transfer of technology, and capacity-building, considering the priority activity areas indicated in the above mentioned GPAII and under the guidance of the Governing Body of the Treaty. It further establishes the payment, which is in certain cases mandatory, of an equitable part of the monetary benefits that are derived from the use of PGRFA into the funding strategy of the Treaty [54]. The Treaty establishes a funding strategy to mobilize funds for activities, plans, and programmes to support the implementation of the Treaty and, in particular, its implementation in developing countries while keeping in line with the priorities that have been identified in the GPA. The funding strategy includes the monetary benefits that are paid in accordance with the MLS as well as the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is described below. The Treaty recognizes the enormous contributions that local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world have made and will continue to make for the conservation and development of PGRFA. The Treaty makes governments responsible for the realization of Farmers’ Rights, including the protection of relevant traditional knowledge; provisions for farmers to participate equitably in sharing benefits; and farmer participation in national policy decision-making [51][55]. Through Article 15, the Treaty establishes its relationship with the CGIAR and other international centres: ‘Ex Situ Collections of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture held by the International Agricultural Research Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and other International Institutions’ and arranges that the materials listed in Annex 1 of the Treaty and that are held by the centres as well as other species than those listed in Annex 1 of this Treaty and collected before its entry into force that are held by IARCs shall be made available in accordance with the provisions of the standard material transfer agreement (SMTA) [51].

    2.7. International Network of Ex Situ Collections

    The international network of ex situ base collections in genebanks that are managed by national, regional, or international centres was a component of the section on the international arrangements of the International Undertaking. It was foreseen that through a steady increase of the number of genebanks participating in the network, adequate coverage in terms of species and geographical distribution would eventually be achieved. It was further foreseen in the IU to conclude agreements (four ‘model agreements’ were available to choose from) with countries to place their base collections within this network and/or to provide storage space for the long-term storage of base collections from elsewhere. A few countries and institutions made concrete offers to place (part of their) their collections in the network. The latter would operate under the auspices and/or the jurisdiction of the FAO and a number of contracts were concluded (see below).

    In 1994, the CGIAR centres expressed the wish that their designated germplasm be recognized as part of the international network of ex situ collections and signed individual agreements with FAO [58]; Chapter 3.1. in [34]. The salient features of these agreements based on one of the above-mentioned model agreements include that:

    • The centre shall hold the designated germplasm in trust for the benefit of the international community.
    • The centre shall not claim legal ownership over the designated germplasm, nor shall it seek any intellectual property rights over that germplasm or its related information.
    • The designated germplasm shall remain in the charge of the centre.
    • The FAO shall have a right of access to the premises at any time and has the right to inspect all activities performed therein.
    • The centre shall undertake the management and the administration of the designated germplasm in accordance with internationally accepted standards with respect to the storage, the exchange and distribution of seeds, the international genebank standards endorsed by the Commission and that all designated germplasm is duplicated.
    • The centre recognizes the intergovernmental authority of the Commission in setting policies for the International Network and shall undergo consultation with the FAO and its Commission on proposed policy changes related to the conservation of the germplasm.
    • The centre shall undertake the creation of samples of the designated germplasm and will make related information available directly to users or through the FAO for the purposes of scientific research, plant breeding, or genetic resource conservation without restriction.
    • The centre shall ensure that such other people or institutions and any further entity receiving samples of the designated germplasm from such a person or institution are bound by the conditions to not claim ownership over the materials or to seek any intellectual property rights over that material and, in the case of samples duplicated for safety purposes, to manage these in accordance with internationally accepted standards.

    A related network, as mentioned above, is the so-called Register of Base Collections that was established by the IBPGR in the 1970s and includes genebanks that were prepared to accept a long-term commitment to conserve germplasm materials and to make these available to users. This register formed the backbone of the international network of base collections. For details, see the paper by Engels and Thormann [38].

    It should be noted that further agreements have been concluded with several other international research centres (e.g., the World Vegetable Center, CATIE and CRU, and some regional organizations (e.g., South Pacific Community)). Agreements with individual countries have not been vigorously pursued. In October 2006, 11 CGIAR centres signed agreements with the Governing Body of the International Treaty to bring their in trust collections under the framework of the Treaty and to recognize the authority of the Governing Body providing policy guidance related to those collections [56][57][58][59][60].

    With the establishment of the International Treaty and its Multilateral System, the network of ex situ collections, and the conclusion of the agreements with the centres of the CGIAR, these collections were brought under the International Treaty (Chapter 3.2 in [34]). The commitments of countries to conserve germplasm for the long-term and to make the materials available (under an SMTA) have been made by countries and genebanks through the inclusion of germplasm in the MLS.

    2.8. The Institutional and Capacity Building Framework

    The establishment of the IBPGR has already been mentioned above, as it was intricately linked to political debate and developments during the 1970s (see Section 2.2). Similarly, the other centres of the CGIAR that operate genebanks with the genetic resource collections of their respective mandate crops are important elements of the emerging global ex situ conservation system. Since its establishment, the IBPGR has played an active role in strengthening this global system by supporting national PGRFA programmes and facilitating the establishment of new regional genebanks as part of the global network. In 1976, the formation of regional programmes in Southeast Asia and Europe and the establishment of (regional) genebanks in Costa Rica and Ethiopia (with funding from Germany) as well as the support provided to students from developing countries to attend the MSc programme on plant genetic resources at the University of Birmingham was reported [37]. Furthermore, the annual report listed international and regional institutions that accepted the invitation to become the holders of ‘world’ base collections of crops of global importance. During the following years, a steady increase of arrangements for regional programmes was reported as well as the development of a computer-based information and retrieval system, support provided to establish or strengthen national programmes and training activities as well as the acceptance of recommendations on the physical and engineering design of long-term seed stores [61][62][63].

    2.9. Global Crop Diversity Trust

    The Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) was established in October 2004 by the IPGRI, now Bioversity International, on behalf of the CGIAR and FAO to help support the global system in a sustainable way through a Crop Diversity Endowment Fund [31]. Its mission is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. Among others, the Trust provides oversight of the CGIAR Genebank Platform. The 11 CGIAR genebanks safeguard a unique global resource of crop and tree diversity and respond to thousands of requests for germplasm from users in more than 100 countries worldwide every year [64]. The goal of the CGIAR Genebank Platform is to conserve these collections and to make this diversity available to breeders and researchers in a manner that meets international scientific standards and that is cost-efficient, secure, reliable, sustainable over the long-term and that is supportive of the Plant Treaty. The Crop Trust has oversight over and financial responsibility for these CGIAR genebanks [65].

    3. Some Critical Side-Effects on the Global Conservation System

    The above-described developments had some significant (perceived?) side-effects on the emerging global long-term conservation system. They included a boost to the establishment of (national) genebanks, among others, triggered by the CBD’s recognition of national sovereignty. The acceptance of intellectual property rights over genetic resources resulted in a steady increase of access regulations to genetic resources. Furthermore, issues of ownership over genetic resources emerged, leading to the refusal of some countries to provide access to ‘their’ plant genetic resources. Against this backdrop, a rather legalistic thinking of access and benefit sharing developed and influenced the arrangements in this field of the International Treaty.

    Evolving molecular and later genomic techniques allowed and facilitated the assessment of genetic diversity aspects, including the identification of duplicate accessions; a quantification of genetic diversity; the identification of alleles and genes and their functions as well as their transfer between individuals and species. A better understanding of genetic diversity also allowed for more targeted collecting, better characterization/evaluation, and greatly facilitated plant breeding. The creation of so-called GMO (genetically modified organism) varieties with the help of these new molecular and biotechnology tools became a ‘hot issue’, among others, due to their threat to the genetic diversity of crop germplasm collections and biodiversity hotspots [66], and this caused restrictions or even prohibition of related research or the cultivation of modified materials. The multilateral thinking became an ‘alternative’ to restricting ownership; more IPRs crept in and resulted in heavy debates and in more restrictive attitudes regarding sharing natural genetic resources. All of these developments and possible repercussions call for a critical review of the current global system as it has evolved in the context of the above-described developments and the mentioned side-effects to provide elements for the creation of a more efficient and rational system of global base collections of important food crops.

    This entry is adapted from 10.3390/plants10091904


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