Better seed for a better life: the Senate should ratify the plant genetics treaty

By Andrew LaVigne

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Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

Preserving and improving global food security smartly creates economic opportunity here by alleviating poverty overseas. Recently Congress passed and President Obama recently signed into law the Global Food Security Act which authorizes U.S. efforts on international agricultural development. While it seems increasingly difficult, but important, to find areas of bipartisan support, we applaud Congress for acknowledging the problems of global hunger and coming together to solve those problems.

Lets Talk Food

Another area of opportunity where the Senate can achieve a bipartisan consensus on alleviating global food security while at the same time enhancing US economic potential is the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already moved the treaty out of the Committee without opposition and the agreement is currently awaiting consideration on the Senate floor. The agreement enhances U.S. competitiveness and global food security by providing continued access and exchange of plant genetic materials used to improve seeds for farmers.

The development and commercialization of high quality seed is a high priority for the American Seed Trade Association and it is critical to global food security. Many people are not aware of the highly interdependent nature of our global food system. No country, including the U.S., is self-sufficient when it comes to seed for the future. In fact, seventy percent of the food we eat and grow comes from crops that are not native to the U.S. American seed banks store, maintain and distribute to U.S. researchers over 560,000 crop varieties. However, over two million more crop lines and their relatives are held in seed banks outside of the country. In order to ensure diversity and improve variety, U.S. seed companies and public researchers must be able to move seed and plant materials between countries.

The most notable example of the impact of exchanging plant materials is the Green Revolution which is credited with saving millions of lives. The wheat that Norman Borlaug developed was based on a combination of materials from the U.S., Japan and Mexico which, in turn, thrived in India and Pakistan. We still use relatives of that wheat today in our breeding programs. Wheat is just one example of hundreds of crops-like carrots, strawberries, potato, corn and beans-which are produced in the U.S. but rely on exotic germplasm.

Public and private plant breeders once enjoyed much freer access to seeds for research and development. However, certain countries began restricting access to their germplasm and the treaty was drafted to try to stabilize this situation. The U.S. played a key role in negotiations leading up to the creation of the final text of the treaty during the Bush Administration. The intent is to create international rules and standards around access and benefit sharing for seed used for agriculture research and development.

Currently, the treaty has 139 Contracting Parties, many of which are important sources of seed exchange, including all EU countries, India, Brazil and Japan. Given its importance to all sectors of U.S. and global agriculture, more than 80 companies, organizations and universities representing plant breeders, academics and seed users have expressed support for ratification. In addition to the American Seed Trade Association, these groups include the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Society of Plant Biologists, Crop Science Society, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' Board on Agriculture Assembly, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, National Farmers Union and National Wheat Growers Association.

Better seed is the foundation for better life everywhere. Through ratification of the International Treaty, public and private plant breeders in the U.S. will have guaranteed access to the full range of global seed materials, in order to adapt crops to address numerous challenges. With the appropriate commercial rules and regulations in place in countries around the world, we expect these seeds to have a lasting impact on global food security.

About the Author: Andrew W. “Andy” LaVigne has more than 25 years of experience in government relations, public affairs advocacy and management. Prior to being named president & CEO of the American Seed Trade Association in 2006, Andy was Executive Vice President/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, representing citrus growers on issues affecting their business. Earlier, he spent four years as President and Executive Director of Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, a non-profit agricultural trade organization representing companies that specialize in crop protection and plant nutrition products.

Andy previously worked for a decade on Capitol Hill, as Legislative Director for Rep. Charles Canady, and earlier, as Agriculture Committee staffer for Rep. Tom Lewis. He holds a B.A. in political science with a minor in economics from the University of Florida.

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