Giving Priority to the Commons:
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic
Resources for Food and Agriculture
Michael Halewood and Kent Nnadozie
Intensive human activity over thousands of years created today's agricultural biodiversity.
Attempts to create market-based incentives for its conservation and innovative uses, through
the application of intellectual property (IP) and CBD-inspired access and benefit sharing
(ABS) laws have not benefited large numbers of smallholder farmers, often living in marginal
agricultural environments, who are the most active present-day users of agricultural biodiver
sity. Evidence is also growing that restricted access and use of plant genetic resources for food
and agriculture (PGRFA) as a result of the application of these same laws (or political uncer
tainties surrounding them) can have a deleterious impact on scientific research and breeding.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides a
general framework for conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA. Most dramatically, it also
establishes a plant genetic resources commons to lower transaction costs for conservation,
research, breeding and training, and to redistribute back to the commons some of the financial
benefits derived from the commercial exploitation of those resources (under certain circum
stances). The Treaty is unlike laws analysed in previous chapters because it concentrates on
defining and maintaining a commons, instead of means by which to fence portions of it off.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Treaty) represents a spirited reaction to the rising tide of measures that extend private or sovereign control over genetic resources, which is inappropriate for food and agriculture. It recognizes that ABS for agricultural biodiversity must be treated differently from the way it is generally treated under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Treaty creates an international genetic resources commons – the 'multilateral system of access and benefit sharing' – within which members, in exercise of their sovereignty, provide free (or almost free)