Rich and poor countries are at loggerheads over how to share benefits from genetic plant data that could help breed crops better able to withstand climate change, as negotiations to revise a global treaty are set to resume in Rome on Monday.
The little-known agreement is seen as crucial for agricultural research and development on a planet suffering rising hunger, malnutrition and the impacts of climate change.
“We need all the ‘genetics’ around the world to be able to breed crops that will adapt to global warming,” said Sylvain Aubry, a plant biologist who advises the Swiss government.
Rising temperatures, water shortages and creeping deserts could reduce both the quantity and quality of food production, including staple crops such as wheat and rice, scientists have warned.
The debate over “digital sequence information” (DSI) has erupted as the cost of sequencing genomes falls, boosting the availability of genetic plant data, Aubry said.
“A lot of modern crop breeding relies on these data today,” he added.
At the same time, the capability of machines to process vast amounts of that data to identify special crop traits such as disease resistance or heat tolerance has grown.
Pierre du Plessis, an African technical adviser on treaty issues, said companies and breeders can use DSI to identify the genetic sequence of a desired plant trait and send it by e-mail to a gene foundry that prints and mails back a strand of DNA.
“Then you use gene-editing technology to incorporate that strand into a plant.
So you have created a new variety without accessing the trait in biological form,” he said.
That process could enable businesses to circumvent the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which stipulates that the benefits derived from using material from species it covers — including money and new technology — must be shared.
Developing states, which are home to many plant species such as maize and legumes used in breeding, hope to add digital sequence information to the treaty’s scope.
This would force companies and breeders that develop new commercial crops from that data to pay a percentage of their sales or profits into a fund now managed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Most wealthy nations, which are generally more active in seed production, argue digital information on plant genetics should be available to use without an obligation to share benefits.
“There’s almost no one still doing the old-fashioned, ‘let’s try it and see’ breeding. It’s all based on the understanding of genome and a lot of CRISPR gene editing creeping in,” said du Plessis.
CRISPR is a technology that allows genome editing in plant and animal cells.
Scientists say it could lead to cures for diseases driven by genetic mutations or abnormalities, and help create crops resilient to climate extremes.
But developing nations and civil society groups such as the Malaysia-based Third World Network say companies that develop new crop varieties using this information could lock access to their critical traits using intellectual property rights.
The treaty row emerged in late October when representatives of governments, the seed industry, research organisations and civil society attended a meeting at FAO headquarters in Rome.
Negotiations have been going on for more than six years to update the treaty, which came into force in 2004 and governs access to 64 crops and forage plants judged as key to feeding the world. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
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