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Forum — Forming a Global Plant Genetics Insurance Policy

Today, thanks to international travel and electronic communications, the world is shrinking more rapidly than ever before. New proximities are bringing us face-to-face with some thorny questions about plant diversity and germplasm.

The Food and Agriculture Organization will sponsor a conference in Germany in 1996 to talk about who owns what in the realm of plant germplasm, how that germplasm should be preserved and maintained, and the level of government action required. Here at Beltsville, Maryland, the Beltsville Symposium XXI planned for May 19-22, 1996, will focus on "Global Genetic Resources: Access, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Rights."

Key to these discussions is the issue of so-called farmer varieties—diverse variations of crops that sometimes exist only on a few acres in some far-flung corner of the world, as opposed to the relatively small number of mega-varieties grown on thousands of acres in developed countries such as the United States.

These farmer varieties may offer significantly lower yields than commercial varieties used in the United States and other developed countries. So it's certainly understandable that fanners in developing countries might want to shift their production to the higher-yielding crop lines. But this could result in the permanent loss of the local varieties that might embody at least part of the solution to some of our most persistent problems with crop diseases, weeds, or insects.

Should farmers in developing countries be compensated in some way for maintaining their traditional varieties and helping keep the worldwide crop germplasm pool as diverse as possible? If so, how would, such a compensation program be funded? And how will projects be prioritized, administered, and serviced?

These are issues that governments around the world must face together.

In a time of shrinking financial resources, someone is sure to ask, "Why concern ourselves with saving these mini-varieties that probably don't yield very well, when we don't even know whether they contain any traits we want?"

The best answers may lie in examples, such as:

Small-scale wheat varieties are grown on a limited number of peasant farms in China and have been virtually unknown outside their home region. Yet some of these varieties possess resistance to a devastating scab disease that can spread from corn to wheat crops—and pose a major threat to farmers in this country who rotate their crops.

Those peasant varieties of wheat from China could be the source of vital genes to protect two of our most economically important crops. But we obviously won't be able to make those types of discoveries if the varieties cease to exist.

Here's another example:

We've been getting soybean genotypes from China since the late 1980's. These farmer varieties are new sources of genetic diversity that will expand the genetic base of U.S. soybeans. They have the promise of being a real treasure chest of valuable traits with diverse production and marketing possibilities. Among these may be new insect and disease resistances, such as new Phytophthora root rot resistance genes, as well as enhanced protein and oil qualities and crop productivity.

We should try to save this genetic diversity. And it's important to maintain some of it under natural conditions, rather than just as a static "snapshot in time" in a germplasm bank.

The need to conserve farmer varieties to ensure preservation of important genes—such as those for disease and insect resistance—has been central to the international debate on ownership of genetic resources. But it's possible that biotechnology will someday render moot some questions about maintaining large numbers of farmers' varieties for specific purposes.

For instance, scientists at the Plant Gene Expression Center at Albany, California, Harvard University, and the University of California-Berkeley and in the United Kingdom and Australia have uncovered what may be a common genetic code for disease resistance in plants.

They've found a new class of related genes in several different plant species that is effective against a wide range of unrelated pathogens—from viruses and fungi to bacteria. Such types of genetic code might be manipulated or transferred among crop plants to provide durable resistance to a wide range of pathogens. Similar mechanisms will likely be identified for other traits as well.

We may someday find ourselves able to get by with several basic genotypic models, eliminating the need for so many diverse crop varieties. But even those discoveries will spring from today's maintenance of both an assortment of varieties that enables us to see the big genetic picture and a strong research program to learn how to more effectively use the diversity in them.

Until the day comes when technology gives us much greater control of the genetics of plants, we need to continue broad-based efforts to support genetic diversity against the rainy day when a currently unforeseen insect, disease, or environmental change threatens the crops that sustain us.

Henry L. Shands
Associate Deputy Administrator
Genetic Resources

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