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Seeds and Sovereignty: Debate Over the Use and Control of Plant Genetic Resources

Seeds and Sovereignty: Debate Over the Use and Control of Plant Genetic Resources

by Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr. (Editor), Daniel Lee Kleinman (Contribution by), Otto H. Frankel (Contribution by), Lucile H. Brockway (Contribution by), H. Garrison Wilkes (Contribution by)

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Seeds for economically important crops are big business indeed. As large seed companies continue to improve their product in various ways, they make use of the original gene pools of these plants, often located in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. With increasing recognition that plant germplasm is an important raw material, highly charged international


Seeds for economically important crops are big business indeed. As large seed companies continue to improve their product in various ways, they make use of the original gene pools of these plants, often located in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. With increasing recognition that plant germplasm is an important raw material, highly charged international disputes have developed over the exchange and use of this material, adding another point of contention between poor nations and the manufacturing wealthier ones.
Twenty experts from several nations, representing both the natural and social sciences, consider the historical background, the issue of patent rights as applied to plant germplasm, the nature of global genetic interdependence, the internationalization of the seed industry, the implications of biotechnology on genetic resources, the Third World attitude toward the debate, and the viewpoints of the International Agricultural Research Centers.

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Duke University Press
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Seeds and Sovereignty

The Use and Control of Plant Genetic Resources

By Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr.

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0756-3



Otto H. Frankel

* * *

It is a commonplace yet awesome thought that man has become the arbiter of life on earth, to exploit, to encourage, to mold, to tolerate, neglect, or destroy. It is even more awesome to realize that man's responsibility extends beyond the realm of those now living into the near and far future. The continuity of life depends on continuing processes of evolution, adapting organisms to inevitable changes in the environment. Evolutionary change depends on the availability of a reservoir of genetic diversity, a "gene pool," as a source for selection. Largely as a result of human activities, the gene pools of many species—both wild and domesticated—are being increasingly depleted. It is man's responsibility to arrest or reverse this process if life on earth is to continue with anything like the diversity of species we have inherited; I have called this "man's evolutionary responsibility" (Frankel 1970, 1974).

The domesticated species, on which the survival and welfare of our own species depend, are subject to short-term evolutionary changes controlled by man. Designed to raise their productivity or to strengthen their defenses, the result of these changes is the impoverishment of genetic diversity.

Some general considerations apply to all forms of life, whether wild or domesticated. But there are differences in the forms of human interference: wild species are threatened by massive losses of habitat, domesticates by the drive for high performance and uniformity. The gene pools of many wild plant and animal species have been greatly reduced, and they are threatened with extinction by encroachment on their natural environments. They have become increasingly dependent on areas designated as nature reserves whose intrinsic limitations in area in turn affect population size and genetic diversity (Frankel 1970; Frankel and Soule 1981). It follows that if life is to survive with something like the level of diversity we have inherited, it is our responsibility to safeguard not only the survival but also the evolutionary potential of species which have come to depend on our protection.

In domesticated plants and animals the responsibility is greatly increased by the fact that humans are not only in full control of breeding strategies and practices but also to a large degree control the gene pools, the genetic resources that will be available in the future. Collections representative of most of the economic plant species are being assembled to serve as genetic reservoirs for the future. These collections need to be preserved and maintained. Wild species forming part of the gene pool of domesticated species, like all wild species, are best preserved in their natural habitats. Yet to the extent that they may be endangered, they are part of man's responsibility for the genetic resources for this and future generations.

The outcome for both wildlife and domesticates, whether loss or preservation, depends in the first instance on scientific insight and social responsibility. The genetics of wildlife conservation (Frankel 1970; Soule and Wilcox 1980; Frankel and Soule 1981; Schonewald-Cox et al. 1983) and the preservation of domesticates have been explored and documented in recent years. But that is only the first and basic condition for success. Initiation of, and continuing commitment to, the conservation of wildlife are no less subject to social conditions and political attitudes in contemporary society than are the preservation and use of crop or forest genetic resources (except that as a long-term commitment, nature conservation is more likely to be sheltered from the effects of short-term fiscal or political winds of change). Yet, irrespective of the level of temporal acceptance, the basic responsibilities remain unless new viewpoints or new facts emerge which compel a reexamination. The editor of this volume suggested that the "politicization" of the germplasm issue represents such a new viewpoint, and the anticipated impacts of biotechnology such new facts. Both are concerned with the genetic resources of plants used by man, which therefore are the main concern of this chapter.

As an introduction to this book, this chapter has the responsibility to assist in an understanding of the main topics underlying the various presentations. It therefore attempts to provide an overview of the genetic resources system and its biological basis. This seems appropriate in view of the amount of misinformation which has become part of the genetic resources folklore. It goes on to examine the biological justification for claims involved in the politicization of genetic resources, as well as the biological and social consequences likely to result should the adversary attitudes generated in the political sphere engulf the scientific one.


The inspiration came from Soviet botanist N. I. Vavilov's discoveries of geographical centers of genetic diversity; early official sponsorship, outside the USSR, came from FAO ; the scientific understanding and the drive for action came from concerned scientists.

In 1961 FAO organized a technical conference (Whyte and Julen 1963). The main topic was plant introduction, not conservation. There was no sense of urgency. A new impulse came from the International Biological Programme (IBP), a nongovernmental activity of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). In 1964 IBP set up a committee for plant gene pools which sought cooperation with FAO. In effect this led to a virtual merging of the IBP and FAO efforts. The first result was a second technical conference in 1967, convened by FAO and IBP at FAO'S Rome headquarters. I have called this conference the constituent assembly of the genetic resources movement (Frankel 1985b) because it resulted in the first formulation of the scientific principles and methodologies of exploration, conservation, evaluation, and information—in fact, in a system that is still in operation. The conference also resulted in publication of an IBP handbook on plant genetic resources (Frankel and Bennett 1970). A successor volume, resulting from a third conference in 1973 and also published by IBP, substantially elaborated all areas defined in 1967 (Frankel and Hawkes 1975).

These two books laid the scientific and methodological foundation. But the 1967 conference did more: it proposed much needed conservation strategies. It forcefully stressed the urgency for action to counter "genetic erosion" and the need for establishing representative collections. It further stressed the necessity of giving priority to landraces (the local varieties of peasant cultivation) because they were immediately threatened. It emphasized the advantages of longterm preservation of seeds as opposed to the common practice of regeneration every few years. It pointed out the need for computerized records. And, under the newly coined term "genetic resources," it established a community spirit for international action.

But very little happened thereafter. The IBP-strengthened FAO panel of experts on plant exploration and introduction and the small genetic resources group established in 1968 in the FAO Crop Ecology Unit endeavored to build on the achievements and recommendations of the 1967 conference. Between 1968 and 1973 they laid the groundwork for every activity to be taken up in later years: from sponsoring surveys of genetic resources in areas where landraces were threatened, defining collecting priorities, or conducting a survey of storage facilities, to formulating the methodology of long-term seed storage, planning education and training, and designing a global network. All this bore fruit at the 1972 Beltsville conference in Maryland which led to the establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR).

The technical effort was matched by publicity. Besides the two books noted above and a large number of contributions to scientific journals, a few members of the FAO Panel of Experts (especially J. R. Harlan, J. G. Hawkes, and myself) reached out to a wider public through journals such as New Scientist, Science, Biological Conservation, World Agriculture, Search, and at many international conferences. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, provided an unprecedented forum. At FAO'S suggestion, I became a consultant to the conference secretariat and wrote the substance of the resolutions which were adopted unanimously. The wide support enjoyed by these resolutions was instrumental in garnering public and official support for further efforts in the conservation of genetic resources.

During these years of struggle for support, no help came from any of those who are so loud in advocacy now that the real battle has been won. The conservationists, the World Council of Churches, and the politicians were silent.

At FAO itself there was no move in all these years to initiate funding and establish a campaign to promote an action program, nor to try to marshal public and political support. The small secretarial group was weakened by personal incompatibilities. Collecting was restricted by lack of funds to a few expeditions a year. There was no sign that FAO would take decisive action at the time when, at the initiative of M. S. Swaminathan, the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) took up the issue of genetic conservation and caused the establishment of IBPGR.

I have provided this brief account of these events (for a fuller description see Frankel 1985a, 1985b, 1986) for the benefit of those who may have had no direct connection with genetic resources activities and for those who may have drawn their information from biased and partly false accounts by Mooney (1983), and also because there is almost no one else who could do so with the first-hand knowledge that I acquired as chairman of both the FAO Panel of Experts and of the IBP committee throughout these years, and as a frequent consultant and visitor to FAO.

The International Board for Plant Genetic Resources spent some two years largely in going over the ground that the FAO Panel of Experts had explored previously. However, the IBPGR did quickly expand actual collection, and a spectrum of activities got underway, especially after J. T. Williams took over as executive officer, IBPGR has become an originator and supporter of activities, a clearing house for information, and a rallying point for workers concerned with genetic resources. It has also been the subject of criticism on the part of some of the supporters of the FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources.

In this chapter I am concerned with activities or achievements which are central to the discharge of our evolutionary or social responsibilities, and the effect upon them of the proposed politicization of genetic resources management. In short: Will the political incursion, if effective, strengthen or weaken, develop or harm, the genetic estate and its usefulness for mankind? As far as possible, I refrain from the use of statistics since they would trivialize rather than clarify the general argument.


Long-term preservation with minimal genetic change, at relatively low cost and, theoretically, without limit to scale, is possible only through preservation of seeds which can be dried and frozen without loss of viability. Species with such "conventional" seeds include all the cereals and many other food and fiber crops. The methodology has been extensively tested and is being extended to include some "recalcitrant" seeds which present difficulties in drying and storage.

An alternative, "crop reservations" of local landraces in farmers' fields, was proposed by Kuckuck (in Bennett 1968:32, 61) and revived by Mooney (1983). It is impracticable for anything like the numbers now contained in germplasm collections, and it would impose great administrative problems for countries where improved cultivation must have first call on agricultural services.

Size and Representativeness of Collections

Germplasm collections are that part of the genetic estate which is under man's direct control, the objective being to make the collections as representative as possible of the estate as a whole. There is no doubt that collections of most if not all crops are now larger and more representative than they were in 1974. Holden (1984: table 24.1) provides a broad overview of the number of accessions held in collections of crop species and notes such obvious shortcomings as duplication between and within collections, uncertainty of degrees of vitality of accessions, likelihood of admixture or error, and many others. But even with these shortcomings, collections of many crops are very large indeed, and the majority are also fairly representative of the environmental range, hence presumably of the genetic range. In all collections there are gaps, and some that should obviously be filled because of a distinctive, extreme, or unique combination of environmental or cultural factors.

But it must be realized that we are, in the main, concerned with genes and with combinations of genes which can be maintained by selection, rather than with whole complements of genes. And genes of interest to breeders may be less rare than is often claimed. The extremely rare genes are found by serendipity, not by probability, and the examples of "unique" resistances are rarely quoted against the background of size and representativeness of the collection in which they were found.

My judgment supports the now widespread opinion (e.g., Holden 1984) that for many crop species the collecting of landraces can now be confined to filling obvious and important gaps. Two complementary rationales support this view. First, collecting activities during the last ten years have been more numerous, better informed, and more systematic than ever before and have given priority to areas and crops that were most in danger of genetic erosion. The number of accessions collected under IBPGRauspices (over 100,000) does not reflect the effort of collecting residual landraces in areas where the more favored environments had been taken over by modern cultivars. Second, in many areas and for many crops, the time for collecting landraces is past. Over large areas, for example in India or Indonesia, where ten years ago traditional cultivars predominated, one can now see hardly any but modern cultivars of rice or wheat or sorghum. I believe that the emphasis on collecting the threatened landraces comes years too late, at least for the major food crops. In many areas they have already vanished, have been adequately collected, or both.

There has also been an improvement in storage facilities for "conventional" seeds, i.e., those which can be dried and frozen. Gene banks are more numerous, more widely dispersed geographically and more technically reliable than they were in 1974. A decade ago you could count the high-grade storage facilities on your fingers. Now the number is considerable, and they are spreading to the "South." I was critical of IBPGR in its early years for not buying prefabricated storage facilities for countries of the "South" when the board was not spending its full budget. This is largely remedied. Some countries are now overequipped, thanks to generous donors. At least one major national collection is badly underequipped, but not through lack of offers. That not all installations are well managed is regrettable, but there has been a substantial and continuing overall improvement.

Finally, we come to wild relatives of crop species. In the sixties and seventies, the main emphasis was placed on landraces because they were immediately threatened and because they were the main resources used by breeders. Now that collections are on the way to being reasonably representative of landraces that are still in use, interest should be—and is—shifting to the wild relatives which, for the most part, have not been adequately collected. I believe this should be done with moderation, along ecogeographical guidelines, with priority for threatened material. While utilization may not be immediate or widespread, the availability of the material will encourage research and utilization and should safeguard the long-term preservation of material that is threatened in its natural habitat.


Excerpted from Seeds and Sovereignty by Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr.. Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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