7 April 2014
Seeds for a Changing Climate – Launching the 3rd Call for Project Proposals under the ITPGRFA
story highlights

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recently launched the 3rd Call for Proposals under its Benefit-sharing Fund.

Ten million dollars will be invested in projects for the sustainable management of crop genetic resources in developing countries.

A major focus is to develop seeds that are resilient to the effects of climate change and other threats to food security.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recently launched the 3rd Call for Proposals under its Benefit-sharing Fund. Ten million dollars will be invested in projects for the sustainable management of crop genetic resources in developing countries. A major focus is to develop seeds that are resilient to the effects of climate change and other threats to food security. The new report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 31 March 2014 confirms that climate change could pose serious threats to food security. The IPCC report also points to crop genetic resources as an important tool for adapting to climate change in the coming decades.

In other words, the 3rd call for proposals seems to have been launched at a very appropriate time given the challenges food production will face in the coming decades. The Call for Proposals 2014 aims to ensure sustainable food security by assisting farmers in the adaptation to climate change through a targeted set of high impact activities arranged in two windows: Immediate Action Projects (Window 2) and Co-development and Transfer of Technology (Window 3). The deadline for the submission of pre-proposals is 5 May 2014.

Why a Benefit-sharing Fund under the International Treaty?

The Benefit-sharing Fund (BSF) was established as part of the Treaty’s Funding Strategy. The Treaty is based on the objectives of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of these resources, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and with a particular focus on food security and sustainable agriculture. Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) share some particular properties when compared to other elements of biodiversity. Maize and potatoes originated in Latin America, but are now vital food crops in Europe and Africa, respectively. Crops grown in different environments develop differently. Flood tolerant rice developed in Indonesia could help farmers in Bangladesh adapt to climate change, while Mexican maize varieties could contain material useful for developing drought tolerant varieties for African countries. Access to crop genetic resources across borders is essential because we are all interdependent when it comes to food security.

Given this interdependency, as well as the fact that many crop varieties contain genetic material from a large number of sources making tracking of useful traits enormously complicated, countries decided to establish the International Treaty. Under the Treaty, access and benefit-sharing is not based on individual, bilateral agreements, but is regulated through a Multilateral System for access and benefit-sharing. Access is facilitated, and the recipient shares benefits upon commercialization, paying into the BSF. Funds from the BSF are distributed to projects and programs for farmers in developing countries, focusing on conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA and based on policy advice by the Governing Body of the Treaty. Until now, BSF disbursements have depended upon donations from a number of generous Contracting Parties to the Treaty as no payments derived from the use of the material in the Multilateral System have been made yet, due to the long plant breeding cycles.

Through the BSF, the International Treaty has been able to fund projects where farmers and public institutions are using crop genetic material to improve food crop production, fight plant pests and adapt to the effects of climate change. To adapt to climate change, farmers and countries need access to the genetic diversity of major food crops, technologies to make use of these resources as well as funding to catalyze relevant activities. Through the Multilateral System and the Benefit-sharing Fund, the Treaty can provide all of these three elements.

The BSF has been steadily growing since its inception in 2009, with the 2nd round of projects currently on-going in 33 countries across Africa, Asia, the Near East, and Central and South America. Examples of project results so far include identification of and development of drought- and heat-resistant varieties of crops like sorghum, rice and barley in several countries including, India, Jordan and Tanzania.

Disturbing signals from Yokohama

According to the signals emerging from Yokohama, Japan, where the IPCC report was recently launched, drought- and heat- resistant food crops will certainly be needed in the coming decades! According to this latest report from the IPCC, we are now headed for climate change that could pose great risks for ecosystems on Earth and many plant and animal species. Food production, and in particular food security for the poor, could also be severely affected in the coming decades. Even if strong efforts are set in motion to reverse current trends, accumulated greenhouse gas emissions will give us a lot of problems in the years ahead.

At present, mitigation measures seem to be insufficient in helping us to avoid crossing the 2º degree warming threshold. Such global warming will result in more droughts and extreme temperatures, more floods and increased instability all over the world. The IPCC report predicts severe consequences for ecosystems, on land, in rivers, lakes and in the oceans, and warns of disrupted livelihoods in low-lying areas, severe harm to urban populations due to flooding, loss of ecosystem services important for human beings and severe health effects during periods of extreme heat.

This last IPCC report deals more thoroughly with agriculture than earlier reports, and looks into how extreme temperatures, droughts and instability of precipitation could affect food production and food security. It is a complex picture, with northern regions and high altitudes possibly seeing benefits for some decades. However, the report finds that “there is high confidence that most developing countries will be negatively affected by climate change in the future.” Africa is identified as one of the most vulnerable regions, and the report finds that “increasing temperatures and changes in precipitation are very likely to reduce cereal crop productivity with strong adverse effects on food security.” For Asia, lower rice yields in large areas are a real danger, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Seeds to our rescue?

However, we are not entirely helpless in this scenario. Food security also depends upon our ability to counteract these grave threats. And in this situation, the small and rather “unnoticeable” parts of nature that consist of the hereditary material in our food crops could help us cope! Studies reviewed by the IPCC show that more systematic efforts to adapt agriculture to climate change could reduce risks to food security significantly in the coming decades. For such adaptation to happen we need crop varieties that can cope with a tougher climate. “Raw material” in the form of crop genetic diversity to develop such varieties is a critical factor for adaptation.

However, to play such a critical role in adaptation, these crop genetic resources must actually be conserved and furthermore, be available for plant breeding. And here lies the problem – the world is losing biodiversity, including these crop genetic resources, rapidly. Much stronger efforts are needed to secure these building blocks of future food security, in seed banks, in farmers’ fields, and, in the case of the potential valuable crop wild relatives, even in areas outside their traditional agro-ecological systems.

Several institutions are involved in efforts to safeguard the biodiversity of agriculture. The objectives of the Treaty have been described above. The scope of the Treaty is defined broadly as “plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.” The three main priorities of the Funding Strategy of the Treaty are 1) Information exchange, technology transfer and capacity building; 2) Managing and conserving plant genetic resources on-farm; and 3) The sustainable use of plant genetic resources. The Treaty also administers the Multilateral System providing facilitated access to 1.5 million accessions of the most important food crops through the use of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA).

The Treaty does not work in isolation to achieve its goals but with a wide range of partner institutions. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, which supports long term storage in seed banks including security storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is also an essential element of the funding strategy of the Treaty. Moreover, the linkages with the CBD are also very solid, particularly in relation to the implementation of the international regime of access and benefit-sharing with the joint workshop for the national focal points of both instruments schedule for early June 2014.

The 3rd call for BSF proposals – strong focus on technology development

The 3rd Call for Proposals to the BSF has a basic similarity to the Second Call, in that funding will be provided for a targeted set of programs, projects and activities of high potential impact that help farmers adapt to climate change through the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA.

Window 2 of the BSF will, as in the last funding cycle, support Immediate Action Plans for managing and deploying crop genetic resources to adapt farming systems to climate change. Activities could include, inter alia, community action to conserve local varieties; introduction and testing of new varieties; plant breeding and selection by farmers and rural communities carried out in partnership with professional plant breeders; and the development and promotion of appropriate seed production and dissemination systems.

Until now, the co-development and transfer of technologies did not receive the substantive and coherent focus expected by the Contracting Parties. Consequently, in this Third Call for Proposals, an additional funding window, Window 3, has been opened up specifically to support the co-development and transfer of technology. Transfer of technology does not generally take place in isolation, but in the context of a ‘package’ of activities, which, in addition to the technology itself, includes information exchange and capacity building. Technology needs to be understood in a very wide sense and its transfer should aim to solve important problems rather than seek to impose specific solutions, i.e. there should be a ‘demand pull’ rather than a ‘technology push.’

Bridging the technology gap?

Projects under this funding window could hopefully help ‘bridge the gap’ between advanced research and the needs of developing country farmers. Projects could focus on key emerging technologies and information resources that could have a strong impact on the livelihoods of farmers, but that have not yet been fully integrated by institutions in developing country Contracting Parties and would therefore generally not be available to farmers today. Examples could be technologies and information repositories for the combined use of genomic sequence data and phenotypic, accession-level and other data providing inputs for the improved use of PGRFA.

There are already international data repositories and regional hubs that can provide integrated information and technologies available to relevant institutions in developing country Contracting Parties. Projects may connect such lead beneficiary institutions to these repositories and hubs. The purpose would be to transfer the skills and technologies needed to make use of the benefits such new tools could provide for farmers in developing countries. Focus would be on technologies that can help develop climate-ready crops for farmers by generating, integrating and exchanging value-added data about the most relevant food crops.

Although described as a largely ‘non-monetary’ benefit, in many cases the co-development and transfer of technology cannot be achieved without a certain amount of catalytic funding. Window 3 will thus provide a channel for funding key activities in this area. These activities should have the potential to make a significant impact on the conservation and/or use of plant genetic resources by resource-poor rural communities. Special attention should be paid to technologies that generate information and germplasm that could enhance the ability of farmers to adapt to climate change, especially through increased resistance to drought, heat and associated biotic stresses.

All materials developed through projects funded by the Benefit-sharing Fund must be available to the Multilateral System through the use of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement. Information generated by funded projects must be made publicly available through the information system provided through Article 17 of the Treaty, making this information available to all Contracting Parties.

Outputs expected from Co-development and Transfer of Technology Projects funded through Window 3 may include, for example:

  • local varieties genetically analyzed to discover the presence of potentially useful alleles, germplasm phenotyped for traits of potential value, use of marker assisted selection systems to facilitate breeding for traits that are important for adaptation to climate change;
  • potentially useful breeding populations developed through crossing with crop wild relatives that have traits useful for adaptation to climate change; new and locally-adapted varieties bred from these populations;
  • technologies transferred, co-developed and deployed to support use of bioinformatics tools by beneficiary institutions, resulting in strengthening the capacity of the lead developing country institutions and local stakeholders to use information management systems and to conduct integrated data analysis and interpretation of germplasm, genomic and phenotypic data;
  • needs of farmers and agricultural stakeholders identified and contributing to the development of international or regional data repositories, and other components of the Global Information System under article 17 of the Treaty,
  • training delivered to developing country scientists and stakeholders and fellowships granted to a new generation of researchers to support the delivery of non-monetary benefits as promoted by the International Treaty, and
  • lessons learned on technology transfer models explored for further replication by all partners, including at national, regional and international levels.

It is worth noting that Window 3 has a sub-window for multi-country projects, with the possibility of funding such projects up to the level of US$500,000. This sub-window will make it possible to expand the scope of activities and to approach problems that are faced by several countries in a concerted manner. The needs of local farmers will still be the starting point of projects, but the involvement of institutions in several countries should also lead to significant capacity-building in the regions concerned.

Seeds as a bridge to a more sustainable future

It is the hope of the Treaty community that our new funding window on Co-development and Transfer of Technology will have a real impact on facilitating the transition to more climate-robust agriculture. Our farmer partners in developing countries are already, today, describing developments they attribute to a changing and less stable climate. These developments are confirmed by the IPCC report. Food production strategies based on sufficient genetic diversity could be good insurance against the many uncertainties ahead of us.

What we know so far indicates that the use of crop genetic resources could play a crucial role in adapting to a changing climate. However, judging from the IPCC report, there are also limits to adaptation. In the long run, if strong mitigation measures are not implemented, climate could change so much that no level of crop adaptation could provide full food security. So the diversity contained in our food crops is not a magic wand; it can, however, provide vital relief and help us boost food security in the transition phase to a more sustainable future.

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