Opinion

Should we pay to use global genetic diversity?

Paul Neate

More complex than it seems

Should we pay to use global genetic diversity? My first reaction to this question was an unequivocal ‘yes’.

Genetic diversity is expensive to maintain and has value in use. Even in traditional seed systems, where farmers are free to keep and reuse their own seed, there are costs involved in acquiring a new variety. No money may change hands, but a farmer who doesn’t offer something in return for the seeds she acquires – seeds of a crop she is known for, agronomic knowledge – will soon be shut out of the informal trading system.

But talking to some colleagues made me think about it some more. In particular, what would we be paying for, and who should be paid? And how far back do we go in considering who is the ‘owner’ of these genetic resources?

A recent study (Khoury et al., 2016) found that, globally, ‘foreign crops’ – i.e. those that originate from elsewhere – account for nearly 70% of food supplies and the use of foreign crops has increased significantly over the last 50 years. The interconnectedness of our food supplies is well illustrated in Figure 1.

Farmers and herders have always taken their crops and livestock with them as they colonised new territory. But the global movement of crops (and livestock) from their centres of origin to new ‘homes’ really got going in the 15th century, with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and increasing global trade between Europe and other parts of the world. So the coffee growing in Brazil originates from Ethiopia, the tomatoes growing in Spain from Peru and its neighbouring countries and the maize that grows just about everywhere from Mexico. In each case, however, a particular variety may have passed through many hands in many countries to become what it is now.

So, who (or which country) should be ‘paid’ for the use of any particular genetic resource?

And how much? The genetic complexity of crop cultivars has increased dramatically over the years. For example, a bread wheat cultivar grown in the Yaqui Valley of Mexico that was released in 1962 – Penjamo – had a total of 69 ancestors in its pedigree. Compare that with one released in 1989 – Rayan – which had a total of 4,839 ancestors in its pedigree! (Smale et al., 2000.) Where did each of those ancestors originate? Or do you take the view that they all originated from somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, back in the mists of time, so any payment should go to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria …? And how much of the value of the ‘final product’ do you ascribe to each of those ancestors?

And where is the value coming from? Does an undocumented wild relative of wheat growing somewhere in Iraq have value? (That’s a bit like the question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"). I would argue that it gains value only once it has been collected and characterised – until we know about its characteristics, such as drought tolerance or disease resistance, there is little reason to plant it or incorporate it in a breeding programme. In that case, should we be paying the person/organisation that characterises the plant (which is a considerable investment in itself), or the country where the plant was collected?

Ow, my brain hurts! What started out as a seemingly simple question with a simple answer got more and more confusing the more I thought about it.

Let’s hear some more thoughts on this.

References

Khoury, C.K., Achicanoy, H.A., Bjorkman, A.D., Navarro-Racines, C., Guarino, L., Flores-Palacios, X., Engels, J.M.M., Wiersema, J.H., Dempewolf, H., Sotelo, S., Ramírez-Villegas, J., Castañeda-Álvarez, N.P., Fowler, C., Jarvis, A., Rieseberg, L.H. and Struik, P.C. 2016. Origins of food crops connect countries worldwide. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283: https://tinyurl.com/zgmsf8c

Smale, M., Reynolds, M.P., Warburton, M., Skovmand, B., Threthowan, R., Singh, R.P., Ortiz-Monasterio, I., Crossa, J., Khairallah, M. and Alanza, M. 2000. Dimensions of Diversity in CIMMYT Bread Wheat from 1965 to 2000. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico DF. 

Visualization of the interconnectedness of food

Figure 1. The fundamental interconnectedness of food. Source: Khoury et al (2016).

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.