While plant genetic resources (PGR) have been sought after, collected, used and improved for centuries, it has only been since the 1930s that concern has been voiced over the need for conservation. Concerted international efforts to promote conservation, exchange and utilization are somewhat more recent.
In response to growing alarm over the rapid loss of agricultural plant species, in 1974 the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) established the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). As an independent Board with its secretariat supplied by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), IBPGRs mission was to coordinate an international plant genetic resources programme, including collecting missions and the construction and expansion of genebanks at national, regional and international levels.
Although much was accomplished during the 1970s, gaps persisted in practical conservation work and linkages with utilization efforts, as well as in institutional relations and policy matters. Due in large part to the urgency of the work during this period, no systematic attempt was made at the intergovernmental level to develop a comprehensive, coordinated plan to conserve and sustainably utilize PGR.
The FAO established an intergovernmental Commission on Plant Genetic Resources in 1983, and adopted a non-binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU), which is now being revised in light of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. In 1995 the Commission was renamed the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), a body which currently comprised of the 143 member States of the FAO.) The Commission and the International Undertaking constitute the main institutional components of the Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which also includes other international instruments and technical mechanisms being developed by the FAO.
A series of international technical conferences and meetings on PGR have been convened by the FAO, in cooperation with other organizations, in order to facilitate technical discussions among scientists and to create awareness about PGR issues among policy- makers at the national and international levels. The first significant meeting was held in 1961 and focused on plant exploration and introduction. The 1967 Conference formulated a number of important resolutions subsequently adopted by the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. The most recent international technical conference, which took place in 1981, catalyzed the development of the FAO Global System.
By the early 1990s, it was becoming evident that another international conference was needed to assess progress, identify problems and opportunities, and give direction to future activities in the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At its fourth session in 1991, the Commission proposed the convening of an international technical conference on plant genetic resources. The FAO established a multi-donor trust-fund project to coordinate the preparatory process for the Fourth International Technical Conference on PGR to be held in Leipzig, Germany, from 17-23 June 1996.
The importance of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture was formally recognized in Chapter 14 of Agenda 21, which includes programmes of action on the conservation and sustainable utilization of PGRFA. At the international level, Agenda 21 proposes actions to: strengthen the FAO Global System; prepare periodic state of the world reports on PGRFA and a rolling global cooperative plan of action on PGRFA; and promote the International Technical Conference on PGRFA, which would consider both the report and the plan of action.
In April 1993, the fifth session of the Commission noted that the Conference process would transform the relevant parts of the UNCED process (including Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)) into a costed Global Plan of Action based on the first FAO Report on the State of the Worlds Plant Genetic Resources. The Commission also noted that the process would make the Global System fully operational.
At its most recent regular session, held in June 1995, the Commission concentrated on two issues in particular: negotiations for the revision of the International Undertaking (the focus of the first extraordinary session of the Commission in November 1994 and a third to be held in the fall of 1996) and preparations for the Leipzig Conference (the focus of a second extraordinary session of the Commission in April 1996).
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