Creating, preserving, and exchanging
Creating a new plant variety requires skilfully crossing extant varieties. Consequently, it is important to have access to genetic resources from multiple countries. From an agricultural perspective, all countries rely on one another. It is for this reason, among others, that the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was adopted in 2001, at the 31st Session of the FAO Conference. The treaty guarantees that signatory nations have open access to publically available genetic resources for 35 food crop species and 29 forage crop species.
The treaty is intended to complement the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted during the 1992 Earth Summit. The latter established two major principles: countries have sovereignty over their own resources, and there must be just and equitable sharing of the benefits obtained from those resources. In both cases, signatory nations committed to applying these principles via national legislation. In France, public and private plant breeding efforts have led together to two Genetic Resources collections that are available to the international community: one comprises 1,800 varieties of common wheat, and the other comprises 500 varieties of maize. The international community also has access to 531 varieties of forage plants and 91 varieties of potatoes, which arose from government of France efforts.
More recently, in July 2016, France passed a law aimed at fostering biodiversity. Its text underscores the importance of genetic resources and its preservation. It also recognises the importance of plant (and animal) genetic resources for agriculture and food production. However, specific regulations remain to be established.
Biodiversity and the French seed industry
Biodiversity refers to all the types of variability that are represented in living organisms, from plants to animals to bacteria. Agriculture has added to natural biodiversity because, since prehistoric times, humans have bred new species from wild ones. These domesticated species then served as the basis for even more domesticated species. Consequently, humans have always sought to improve upon the ancestral genetic resources of crop species.
It is a misconception that the breeding of new varieties via private or public research reduces biodiversity. Indeed, breeders rely on the wealth of existing biodiversity, and namely genetic diversity, to generate new plant varieties. It is therefore important to preserve all potential sources of biodiversity, since agriculture’s future depends on our ability to create new varieties to meet new food or environmental challenges. Genetic resources can be found in species with ancient lineages, the ancestors of domesticated species, and current crop species themselves.
Plant breeders recognise this fact, which is why they were the ones to initiate France’s Genetic Resources collections. Since the 1990s, France has witnessed the establishment of around 30 collaborative species conservation networks by plant breeding companies and public research institutes. Some of the genetic biodiversity found in crop species is currently exploited. Other genetic resources are being stored in “reservoirs” so that they are available to meet unknown future challenges. New varieties created by seed breeding companies add to existing biodiversity and could be incorporated into these collections of genetic resources.