Should we pay to use global genetic diversity?

Jean-Louis Pham

Let’s support conservation programmes

Should we be paying to use the global plant gene pool? What a question! Or rather, several questions in one... 

Why should we pay? Who pays? Whom do we pay? How much? What gene pool are we talking about – the maize gene pool used by major seed firms, or the fonio gene pool, a ‘minor’ grain popular among smallholders in West Africa? Biodiversity stored in seed banks, crops grown by farmers or the gene pool found naturally in the wild? ‘Tangible’ diversity (seeds) or ‘intangible’ diversity (data produced by agronomists and molecular scientists, gene-sequence data and traditional scientific knowledge)? 

The reason I ask these questions is to show the sheer complexity that underlies the initial question (which its original authors probably didn’t realise) and to apologise in advance for not addressing it in full in this short post. 

So let’s narrow down the question a little. Let’s assume we’re talking about ex situ plant genetic resource conservation (gene banks). And let’s assume (albeit optimistically) that we’ve ironed out questions around how the benefits (especially monetary gains) of plant genetic resource use are distributed – how profits from the farming of a particular cultivar are shared (for example, under the Nagoya Protocol or the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture). 

In our hypothetical situation, the question of payment boils down to accessing genetic resources and the information we need to use them, rather than royalties on the profits made from growing these crops. In theory, the fee paid should contribute towards covering conservation expenses in order to ensure the sustainability of the system. And getting users to contribute to these overheads – rather than shipping costs, which is what currently happens – could help raise the profile of conservation work. 

It’s tricky to work out exactly what these conservation costs amount to (if we include collection, characterisation, information management and everything else that goes with it). Gene banks aren’t the only actors in the chain. In some cases, it is research programmes – not gene banks – that collect samples and do the agronomic and molecular analysis work. But let’s assume we can estimate these costs to a satisfactory degree of accuracy. 

If we don’t use gene banks wisely, there is a real danger that governments could start withdrawing their support for conservation programmes, leaving them to develop their own business models to fund their overheads and become financially independent. Not every gene bank can viably go down this route. And more importantly, in my view at least, governments have an individual and collective responsibility to protect biodiversity for the good of humanity. 

If governments start withdrawing funding from these programmes, we could also see the marketisation of genetic resources. Granted, encouraging ex situ conservation programmes to cover their own costs could be beneficial as it would force them to improve service standards to gain a competitive edge. But this point is already addressed by existing incentive schemes. What’s more, we might see gene banks charging different fees for different resources. This, in turn, would see conservation and evaluation efforts target the most coveted species and sample sets, leaving less desirable varieties and gene pools out in the cold. 

One way to overcome these problems would be a system whereby the fees paid to access and use plant genetic resources are no more than a nominal contribution to overheads. This would keep the costs affordable while maintaining government funding for conservation programmes.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.