Article 5 – Conservation, Exploration, Collection, Characterization, Evaluation and Documentation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The provisions of Article 5 and 6 were basically non-contentious in the Treaty negotiations. They nevertheless are central to the Treaty and provide a modern framework for action on the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA.58 The provisions expand and modernize the earlier provisions of the International Undertaking (Articles 3 and 4 in particular), develop a PGRFA application of themes that are set out in the CBD, and draw heavily on the areas identified in the GPA adopted by the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig in 1996 (see Box 15), especially those identified as priorities in decision III/11 of the CBD.

The chapeau of Article 5.1 calls for promoting an integrated approach to the exploration, conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA and, in this sense, draws together the provisions of Articles 5 and 6. None of the provisions of these two articles can stand alone: all of the actions required must form part of an integrated approach if they are to be effective. Survey and inventory activities, for example, would be of little use if subsequent action is not taken to collect, conserve and use the PGRFA.

This Article, like the Preamble, recognizes the principle of national sovereignty. It specifically states that while Contracting Parties shall promote the exploration, conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA, this nevertheless remains “subject to national legislation”.

Normally any subjection of a Contracting Party's obligations under an international treaty to its national legislation is somewhat suspect. In this particular case, the insertion serves to indicate that, even where the actions are taken in cooperation with other Contracting Parties, the final decisions regarding the promotion of an integrated approach to the exploration, conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA lie with the state in which the plant genetic resources are to found.

This chapeau also acknowledges that in some cases cooperative action with other Contracting Parties may well be called for in order to achieve this goal.

It is important to note that this article only imposes a commitment to promote an integrated approach to the exploration, conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA. This obligation does not include the duty to regulate, although regulation would be one method by which countries could meet their obligation to “promote an integrated approach”. The Treaty does not specify any particular action, so much as a general direction to be taken toward the goal to be attained. The manner in which this is to be attained is left largely to the discretion of the Contracting Parties. In this respect, paragraphs (a) to (f) serve as important elements required to achieve the goals established in this Article. These paragraphs focus on three fundamental conservation methods: on-farm conservation (paragraph (c)), in situ conservation (paragraph (d)), and ex situ conservation (paragraph (e)). They also address other steps involved in the conservation of PGRFA: surveying and inventorying (paragraph (a)), collection (paragraph (b)), and monitoring (paragraph (f)). The provisions concerning monitoring relate to all three methods of conservation. The steps and measures set out these paragraphs are not intended to be exhaustive.

Finally, while the various paragraphs of Article 5.1 list a number of areas in which concrete action should be taken, the use of the words “as appropriate” indicates that each Contracting Party has a good deal of discretion in choosing the most appropriate ways for it to fulfill its general obligation.

As is made clear in the first priority activity area under the GPA, rational conservation, both in situ and ex situ, begins with the surveying and inventorying of existing PGRFA. Contracting Parties need to know what resources exist in their countries before they are able to develop and elaborate policies and strategies for the conservation and utilization of PGRFA.

Countries that have ratified the CBD, pursuant to Article 7, have accepted responsibility to identify and monitor components of biological diversity important for its conservation and sustainable use. However, FAO Country Reports prepared in 1995 in connection with the formulation of the GPA indicated that little systematic work had been done in this regard for many crops and their wild relatives. The same principle applies to threats to PGRFA.

Surveys help identify areas with high natural plant genetic diversity and areas where plant genetic diversity is at risk, as well as the state of ex situ and national collections. These are the necessary factual bases that must be determined before Contracting Parties can proceed to minimize and eliminate threats to PGRFA, as provided for in Article 5.2. Surveying and inventorying will provide database information on the identification, characterization, evaluation and utilization of the existing germplasm pool of the country's wild array of flora. Such inventories are needed in order to develop appropriate conservation strategies and to ensure complementarity between in situ and ex situ conservation.

Paragraph (a) calls on Contracting Parties to pay attention in their surveys and inventories to both (i) the status of existing populations and (ii) the degree of variation within those populations. In this connection, it is uncertain whether the term “of potential use” qualifies the term “populations” or “PGRFA”. If it were taken as qualifying the term “PGRFA”, it would appear to be unnecessary and duplicative, given that PGRFA are defined in Article 2 as meaning genetic material of actual or potential value for food and agriculture. For this reason it could be argued that the term “of potential use” should be taken as qualifying the term “populations”. Regardless of which interpretation is adopted, it remains difficult to ascertain which PGRFA, or which populations, may be of potential use, given that new ecological conditions and challenges may throw up the need for different characteristics that may not hitherto have proved to be of actual commercial value. The reference to “potential use” evidences the precautionary approach adopted by the Treaty.

The emphasis on the degree of variation in existing populations reflects the importance of intra-species as well as inter-species diversity of PGRFA for plant breeding programmes.

Much of the inventory/survey work recently performed has been undertaken in environments selected for their high diversity. Work in areas where modern cultivars have substantially replaced traditional cultivars has been limited. For the most part, the scale of many projects has been small and often only 3-6 crops have been selected for study, over several villages in 3 to 4 agroecological zones. The “Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea” project, however, provides one example of an attempt to work at a wider scale. The project, which was initiated in 1980, aims to survey and inventory all the flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. When completed, the Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea will be a medium-sized to large African flora manual, covering approximately 7,000 species of vascular plants, of both indigenous and important cultivated species.59 The project has developed capacity on plant taxonomy and includes intraspecific crop diversity studies to help assess the amount and distribution of crop diversity. In general, however, PGRFA inventories and surveys have tended to provide a “snapshot” of plant genetic diversity rather than a good overall estimation that could be used for future monitoring.

It is important to note that Contracting Parties are also to assess any threats to PGRFA. This provides the rational for identifying the PGRFA to be collected under Article 5.1(b).

Contracting Parties are expected to collect PGRFA that are under threat or are of potential use. PGRFA that are under active use or are not threatened need not be collected, although in practice they may well be included in ex situ collections so that samples can be made available for further research and breeding. Collection of plant genetic material began very early in history (see Harlan, Crops and Man), but in modern times peaked in the early 1970s. This was partly due to the need to enhance the contribution of PGRFA to new agricultural development. It was also in part sparked by the newly felt need to preserve genetic variability, threatened by the replacement of traditional varieties of the major crops by higher yielding cultivars. For the most part, collections are held in genebanks. Supporting planned and targeted collecting of PGRFA is a priority activity area of the GPA.

This paragraph addresses not only the PGRFA per se, but also “relevant associated information”. Ex situ collections of PGRFA are more useful for plant breeding if the breeders have full information on the samples collected and clues as to the possible traits they may exhibit. The term “relevant associated information” is not defined, but Article 12(c), in connection with the Multilateral System, refers to “all available passport data and, subject to applicable law, any other associated available non-confidential descriptive information”. Elements that could constitute “relevant associated information” are also discussed under Article 5.1(e).

It is unclear from a textual reading of this paragraph whether the qualifying clause “that are under threat or are of potential use” refers to PGRFA that are to be collected in general, or to those PGRFA on which relevant associated information is to be collected. However, the sense of the paragraph would sustain the former interpretation rather than the latter, despite the lack of commas surrounding the words “and relevant associated information on those plant genetic resources”.

This paragraph and the subsequent paragraph, separate in situ conservation into the distinct activities of on-farm conservation and in situ conservation of wild PGRFA (see Paragraph (d)). This is an example of greater specificity in the Treaty as compared to the CBD, and reflects the treatment of in situ conservation in the GPA. This is the first time that the specific role of farmers and local communities in conserving genetic resources has been recognized in a legally binding international treaty.

Paragraph (c) calls for promotion or support of farmers and local communities efforts to manage and conserve their PGRFA on-farm. Where such efforts are lacking, then the Contracting Parties should strive to promote them. Where they do exist, the Contracting Parties should support those efforts, presumably through technical and financial support. The extent to which this support is provided, and the means by which it is provided, is left to the individual Contracting Parties to determine.

Various projects serve as examples of the kind of support that can be provided:

Active measures must be taken to promote or support on-farm conservation of PGRFA. Modern plant breeding has been remarkably successful in helping raise yields, and in improving resistance to pests and diseases and quality of food products, especially in favourable environments. Farmers choose crops and cultivars for planting based on their unique set of production and consumption conditions. Their choices also determine their level of on-farm conservation. Farmers' planting decisions are driven by agro-ecological factors, market and socio-economic factors and availability of planting materials. For some farmers, particularly those in highly heterogeneous production areas, or where market development is very limited, maintaining a diverse set of plant genetic resources is the most efficient means of managing their farming system. For others however, the adoption of a more narrow set of plant genetic resources may best serve their interests, leading to a lower level of crop diversity. In the first instance there is a high degree of compatibility between the private interest of the farmer, and the public interest in conserving genetic resources and evolutionary processes for possible future use. In the second case, however, public and private interests diverge, and some sort of intervention may be necessary to provide farmers with the necessary incentive to conserve plant genetic resources on-farm.

On-farm conservation is important because, in addition to genetic diversity, it preserves evolutionary interactions necessary for the continuous adaptation to shifting environmental conditions, such as changes in pest populations or climate. It is the best way to uphold the knowledge of the farming systems in which the crops have evolved. Finally, on-farm conservation provides a continuing source of germplasm for ex situ collections.

Natural ecosystems hold important PGRFA, including endemic and threatened wild crop relatives and wild plants that produce food. This genetic diversity, because of interactions that generate new biodiversity, is potentially an economically important component of natural ecosystems and cannot easily be maintained ex situ. Where natural ecosystems are not managed sustainably, erosion of PGRFA will inevitably result.

The focus of this paragraph is the “in situ conservation of wild crop relatives and wild plants for food production”. The wild relatives of crop plants, which include the progenitors of crops, as well as species more or less closely related to them, constitute an increasingly important resource for improving agricultural production and for maintaining sustainable agroecosystems. While most farmers and plant breeders normally prefer to work with existing cultivars or advanced breeding materials, as they are more productive and relatively easier to interbreed, they sometimes need to search further afield to find specific traits when faced with new or evolved pests and diseases or other ecological challenges.

Using conventional methods, wild relatives of crops are generally more difficult to work with, in that undesirable traits already present may be difficult to separate from the desirable trait. But where they are used, they can have quite dramatic results. Historically, they have contributed many useful genes to crop plants, and modern varieties of most crops now contain genes from their wild relatives. In modern varieties of potatoes, wheat, barley, rice, maize and oat, among other crops, traits from wild relatives have improved productivity as well as tolerance to pests, disease and difficult growing conditions.

Germplasm collection of wild crop relatives serves a multitude of purposes. They are gene repositories, preserving alleles of potential agronomic utility that have not been captured in the gene pool of elite cultivars, and provide reference material for which a body of information may be accumulated through study by different researchers. The wise conservation and use of crop wild relatives are essential elements for increasing food security, eliminating poverty, and maintaining the environment.

With the increased use of modern (or laboratory) biotechnology, it is becoming increasingly common to use genes from wild crop relatives and transfer them to cultivated varieties. This therefore increases the value of such wild species to PGRFA.

In addition to domesticated crops, wild biodiversity provides a diverse range of edible plant and species that have been and continue to be used as wild sources of food. About 7000 species of plants have been used for human food at one time or another. Wild sources of food in general remain particularly important for the poor and landless, and are especially important during times of famine, insecurity or conflict, where normal food supply mechanisms are disrupted and local or displaced populations have limited access other forms of nutrition. Even at normal times wild foods are often important in complementing staple foods to provide a balanced diet.

As stated previously, in situ conservation aims to include not only the conservation of the genetic resources, but also elements of the environment in which they have developed.

The reference to “protected areas” is also important. Efforts need to be made to ensure the management of wild crop relatives and other useful species for food and agriculture within protected areas. There may, of course, be issues to resolve concerning the complementary management of specific species of value to food and agriculture and other forms of wildlife.

The paragraph specifically acknowledges the efforts of indigenous and local communities. At the same time, there is a clear statement that supporting the efforts of local communities is only one of many ways in which in situ conservation can be promoted.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) work in the Man and the Biosphere programme is an example of supporting a number of activities that are of particular importance for the conservation of genetically important wild crop relatives situated in forest habitats (for example, the Mazatlan Biosphere Reserve in Mexico for wild perennial teosinte/maize).

Other examples include:

A large amount of PGRFA vital to world food security is stored ex situ. Most of this PGRFA is stored in national genebanks.64 Important collections are also held by the IARCs of the CGIAR. There is value, and a degree of security, in the diversity of the collections, but many of the samples held are duplicates of samples held within the same genebank and many collections are short of funds and in a perilous condition. This paragraph calls for the development of a system of ex situ conservation that is efficient and sustainable. The development of such a system requires international cooperation: an efficient and sustainable system of ex situ conservation cannot be achieved by focussing exclusively on individual national collections. The GPA notes the need for a more rational system of genebanks that avoids, in particular, unnecessary and unintended duplication. Indeed the GPA emphasizes that rationalizing the present system and making it more efficient could reduce costs and release money for expanding ex situ conservation activities. The GPA states the aim as being the development of an efficient goal-oriented, economically efficient and sustainable system of ex situ conservation. The principle of cooperation is also explicitly mentioned in Article 16 of the Treaty, which encourages cooperation in international PGRFA networks. The wording of Article 5(e) picks up this theme indicating that it is not enough for Parties to act separately to promote ex situ conservation.

In an effort to raise the quality of ex situ collections, the FAO CGRFA has adopted, and will keep under review, a series of Technical Standards for Genebanks, covering wild, forest and crop species. The standards are designed in particular to minimize the loss of genetic integrity in seed accessions during storage and regeneration. The standards were endorsed by the FAO Commission in order that they might acquire universal value and be more easily adopted by countries. In this sense the standards, while not binding, will be an essential guide for national collections and the implementation of this paragraph of the Treaty. Under the in-trust Agreements between the CGIAR Centres and FAO placing collections of plant germplasm under the auspices of FAO, signed in 1994, the Centres undertake to manage and administer the in-trust germplasm in accordance with internationally accepted standards, including, with respect to the storage, exchange and distribution of seeds, the International Genebank Standards endorsed by the FAO Commission.65 Article 15.1(d) of the Treaty requires that a similar provision be included in the new agreements to be entered into between the Governing Body and the CGIAR Centres.

Ensuring “adequate documentation, characterization, regeneration and evaluation” is fundamental to an efficient system of ex situ conservation, if it is to achieve its objective of “improving the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture”. “Documentation” refers to the totality of the documentation that should be available for genebank accessions, including that related to the characterization, regeneration, and evaluation of the individual accessions. “Characterization” refers to the categorization of data on highly heritable characteristics of genebank accessions, such as colour of flowers, that are constant in any environment, and would include information on the nature and extent of genetic diversity obtained using various technologies, including molecular techniques. “Regeneration” refers to the need to grow out stored seeds periodically to ensure that they remain viable and to ensure that there is sufficient seed for conservation and redistribution. “Evaluation”, on the other hand, relates to the assessment of the agronomic characteristics of the material, including disease or drought resistance, including by molecular technologies. To a large extent, the accessibility of germplasm, and its usefulness for farmers and plant breeders, will depend on the adequacy of the documentation, characterization, regeneration and evaluation of that germplasm. A recently published guide on effective germplasm collection management by IPGRI, FAO and others66 provides information on how best to conduct information management, characterization, regeneration and evaluation activities.

The paragraph also emphasizes that the development of an effective system of ex situ conservation requires the development and transfer of appropriate technologies. This is one of the objectives of Priority Activity Area 8 of the GPA, which emphasizes the needs of developing countries in this regard, and calls for strengthening field genebanks and enhancing the conservation activities of botanic gardens. The GPA also puts emphasis on the need to develop improved conservation methods including appropriate in vitro and cryopreservation and in particular low cost techniques appropriate to local operating conditions. There are many nonorthodox species for which there are not yet appropriate and effective conservation technologies. Contracting Parties should therefore promote the development of such technologies in their own countries, in particular because technologies transferred from temperature climates may not always be appropriate for conditions in tropical countries. The final phrase of the paragraph states the objective of improving the sustainable use of PGRFA. It is unclear whether this refers only to the development and transfer of technology or to the entire contents of the paragraph.

Promoting the development of ex situ conservation requires financial as well as technological support. In this context, an initiative is underway to establish a fund (the Global Crop Diversity Trust) to provide financial support for the development of an efficient and sustainable system of ex situ conservation, including upgrading the capacities of institutions, including genebanks, to meet international standards for the various activities carried out for ex situ conservation (see Box 20). The Global Crop Diversity Trust would operate at the international level as an essential element of the Treaty's funding strategy (see Article 18).

Other support mechanisms already exist at the national level. For example, Cuba's National Diversity Strategy and Action Plan promotes the establishment of mechanisms to allow validation, use and dissemination of genetic material included in ex situ collections of plants of economic importance. In addition, there is an on-going project to understand (1) whether home gardens retain varietal and species diversity that is undergoing genetic erosion in other production systems, (2) how commercialisation and crop introduction or improvement affect species and varietal diversity in home gardens and, (3) what targeted development interventions enhance home garden biodiversity and improve family nutrition and income.

To the extent that such mechanisms do not already exist at the international or national levels, the paragraph would require the Contracting Parties to cooperate to establish them.

Together, the forgoing paragraphs (c), (d) and (e) can contribute to achieve target IX of the CBD's Global Strategy for Plant Conservation: “70 per cent of the genetic diversity of crops and other major socio-economically valuable plant species conserved, and associated indigenous and local knowledge maintained”.

The need to develop an efficient and sustainable system of ex situ collections of PGRFA was addressed in the preceding paragraph. The current paragraph seeks to ensure that Contracting Parties continue to monitor the viability and genetic variation and integrity of collections of PGRFA. Such monitoring might include activities such as measuring seed moisture content and the germinability of genebank accessions at regular intervals, characterization during regeneration process to verify if progenies are true-to type, conducting baseline studies to determine the extent of variation in genebank accessions, assessment of genetic variation and maintenance integrity using molecular markers at each regeneration, and monitoring of germplasm management procedures in genebanks to determine whether materials are properly conserved. Ultimately, the purpose of this paragraph is to ensure that the diversity of any given accession is conserved, either as seed, tissue or plants. To assist in this purpose, IPGRI produces and provides freely many publications to help genebanks in these important conservation and management activities.67

Technologies that can be used to study the degree of variation of collections and monitor genetic integrity include morphological characterization as well as molecular DNA techniques such as RFLP, RAPD, AFLP, PCR-based techniques and micro-arrays. Analysis of isoenzyme and other protein variations are not as widely used at present as they used to be.

The above paragraph is aimed mainly at ex situ collections. However, it is also important to implement appropriate monitoring for in situ material, e.g. relating to the effects of the introduction of new alien material, the effects of introduction of new genetic material by farmers as well as of gene flow and subsequent introgression from cultivated as well as wild related taxa, including that of genetically modified elements. Guidelines and other technical publications are being developed by IPGRI and other research institutes.

While Article 5.1 focuses on the action that Contracting Parties must take to survey, inventory, collect and conserve PGRFA, particularly those under threat, and to identify threats, Article 5.2 places a positive obligation on the Contracting Parties to minimize or, if possible, eliminate those threats. Major causes of loss of diversity of PGRFA include changing agricultural practices and loss of agricultural land. The use of genetically modified organisms in centres of diversity may also be regarded as a possible threat to plant genetic resources. Possible ways of mitigating the threats include collecting resources for ex situ maintenance, the development of in situ conservation actions, adoption of agricultural practices which enhance the use of a diverse mix of varieties and the maintenance of genetic diversity in crop varieties by broadening the genetic base of materials in production. The GPA describes and promotes many of these activities. A technical manual on germplasm collecting provides information on collecting procedures to promote expansion of ex situ collections, while ensuring that wild collection does not threaten the conservation status of wild varieties.68 Also the earlier cited “A guide to effective management of germplasm collections” IPGRI Handbook for Genebanks No. 6 (2003) provides useful approaches and management suggestions on how to minimize and/or eliminate threats to PGRFA in genebanks.

In order to implement this provision the Contracting Parties will need to develop procedures for identifying and quantifying threats to plant genetic resources and systems of monitoring changes in the conservation status of PGRFA. This will allow for the timely development of procedures to minimize the effect of threats and, possibly, take remedial action to eliminate them. Some work on indicators has been undertaken69 and work is continuing by FAO and IPGRI within the framework of the CBD Strategy (e.g. Resolution COP7/30) and the CBD Programme of Work on Agricultural Biodiversity.

58See generally, H. David Cooper, The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, in Reciel, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2002.


60See “Report of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel Selective Review of “Dynamic Farmer-Based Approach to the Conservation of African Plant Genetic Resource” (1999), available at:


62Conservation of Genetic Diversity and Improvement of Crop Production in Mexico: A Farmer-Based Approach. The project entails (1) a description and analysis of the relationships between farmer knowledge, socio-economic factors, and genetic diversity in the Mexican milpa agroecosystem; (2) a characterization of the structure of crop biodiversity and the magnitude of gene flow from wild or cultivated relatives to maize, bean, and squash crops; and (3) the development and evaluation of on-farm breeding methods to improve the productivity of local landrace germplasm through mass selection of introgression from improved germplasm (maize) or wild or cultivated relatives (bean and squash). See


64According to the first Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, some 88% of global PGRFA held ex situ is maintained in national collections.

65For a more detailed description of the in-trust agreements, see Box 11.

66Engels and Visser, 2003.

67Examples include: “Procedures for Handling Seeds in Genebanks”, Practical Manuals for Genebanks: No. 1, (1985) IPGRI, Rome, Italy;“Handbook of Seed Technology for Genebanks”, in Handbooks for Genebanks No. 2 and No. 3, (1985) IBPGR, Rome, Italy; and several Technical Bulletins and handbooks published by IPGRI, e.g. “A protocol to determine seed storage behaviour”, Technical Bulletin No. 1, (1996) IPGRI, Rome, Italy;“Accession management. Combining or splitting accessions as a tool to improve germplasm management efficiency”, Technical Bulletin No. 5, (2002) IPGRI, Rome, Italy; and “A guide to effective management of germplasm collections”, IPGRI Handbook for Genebanks No. 6 (2003).

68Guarino, L., V.R. Rao and R. Reid (eds.) 1995. Collecting Plant Genetic Diversity: Technical Guidelines. CAB International, Wallingford, UK.

69See document CGRFA-9/02/10 submitted to the 9th Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture “Progress Report on the World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture”, June 2002.

< previous section  < index >  next section >