An International Treaty built on interdependence
Bananas originated in South and Southeast Asia, and are now produced throughout the world’s tropics and eaten in at least 192 countries worldwide. Quinoa came from the South American Andes, and is currently cultivated in almost 100 nations. Countries clearly depend on one another’s crop diversity. But can we measure the extent of the benefits?
The only new International Treaty so far agreed this millennium, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is based on a concept that may seem obvious and yet is very difficult to measure – countries benefit from another’s crop diversity.
Interdependence among countries is so foundational to the Treaty that it is mentioned in the preamble, which outlines its rationale:
“Cognizant that plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are a common concern of all countries, in that all countries depend very largely on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture that originated elsewhere;”1
This short sentence is dense with important tenets: a) that crop diversity is valuable to food and agriculture; b) that the origins of that diversity – the geographic locations where crops were initially domesticated and evolved over long periods of time – are particularly important sources of genetic resources; c) that all countries around the world need this diversity to maintain agricultural productivity; and d) therefore that all countries have an interest in the conservation and open exchange of this diversity.
These tenets are self-evident for those who work with genetic resources and consider themselves students of N.I. Vavilov. But how true are they? Where is the present-day evidence for interdependence among countries? How much do countries really need each other at this point in human history?
Just how interdependent are countries?
Evidence of massive change in recent decades in the ways that countries feed themselves clearly support the argument that existing food systems are interdependent. Trade in food across national boundaries has been increasing2-5. Bananas are eaten in at least 192 countries, on every continent6. Around the world people are eating much more similarly, with an ever greater proportion of diets composed of products made from a relatively small range of staples including wheat, rice, sugar, maize, potato, soybean, and oil palm7.
Global interdependence in trade in agricultural commodities is pretty clear. But what about interdependence among countries at the level of focus of the Plant Treaty, that is, genetic resources?
Unfortunately, data on the amount of exchange of plant genetic resources across national borders are not as easy to come by as statistics on commodity trade. A global information system revealing distributions from genebanks to specific recipients does not yet exist, and not all genebanks are in the practice of making such data available. Some genetic resource users prefer that their requests be kept confidential, especially those in the private sector. Perhaps most importantly, there is no comprehensive way to track what requested genetic resources have actually contributed to the creation of new crop varieties that have ultimately affected farmers’ and consumers’ lives. Thankfully, the information mechanism being created by the Plant Treaty itself is making it more feasible to understand the global impact of germplasm distributions. But countries will need to agree to openly share distribution information with the public for it to work.
On the other hand, there is published evidence for increasing international distributions over time by the CGIAR genebanks and the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System8-11. There is also good data on the use of breeding materials from diverse geographic backgrounds in the development of modern varieties of cereal and grain legume crops12-17. In addition, most of the largest producers of major crops are located far from the geographic origins of these plants, e.g. China, India, USA, Russian Federation, France and Canada for wheat; USA, China, Germany, France, Brazil, and Argentina for maize; USA, Brazil, Argentina and India for soybean; and China, India, Russian Federation, Ukraine, and USA for potato6,18. Case studies and general indications thus show that countries are likely using more “exotic” genetic diversity over time.
How about an estimate of interdependence among countries?
A few years ago, during a deep dive into the philosophical underpinnings of the Plant Treaty, I began to investigate how the argument that countries are interdependent was successfully made in the absence of comprehensive information on exchange of crop diversity across borders. One part of the answer lies in a study carried out a few years before the Plant Treaty was born by Bolivian scientist Ximena Flores-Palacios, and written up in 1998 for the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.