Seeds without borders: Using and sharing plant genetic diversity to adapt to climate change in Africa

Media release, Addis Ababa: 23 November 2015

 11 African countries gathered last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to implement seed sharing and use to adapt to climate Seeds without borderschange, ensure food security and alleviate poverty.

No single country has all the genetic resources it needs to adapt to global challenges of climate change, food security and poverty alleviation – the reason that 11 African country teams  met last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They were finding ways to work together to implement two international agreements to conserve and exchange plant genetic resources with each other and with the rest of the world, and share related benefits.

Interdisciplinary teams from Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Malawi, Senegal and Uganda spent the week working together to set their country roadmaps for embedding the sustainable use of plant genetic resources into the heart of national development plans.

This is a critical and timely issue in the lead-up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, which will be held in Paris, France at the beginning of December – The International Panel on Climate Change predicts that agricultural production is set to decline, with yields of major crops in Africa declining by up to 8% . This means that alternative varieties or replacement crops that can grow in the changing climatic conditions are urgently need to be available to farmers.

Two international agreements govern how countries exchange seeds beyond their borders – the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Plant Treaty) and the Nagoya Protocol. But to implement these agreements at the country level is not always straightforward as Michael Halewood, Bioversity International, explains:

What we saw last week is the importance of bringing people together from different focal areas of responsibility that do not normally work together. For example, focal points from the agricultural and the environment sector sat together with their finance and planning, GEF* and climate change focal points, to develop national roadmaps to address to address climate change adaptation, access and benefit-sharing associated with genetic resources. This is significant. If countries are to make the most out of the biological diversity that they have at their disposal, and that they can get from other places, they’ve got to implement these agreements together.”

Andreas Drews, ABS Capacity Development Initiative continues:

“It is really important for African countries to think through how to bring access and benefit-sharing (ABS) into the national implementation processes in a coherent way. Since the beginnings of agriculture farmers and local communities have exchanged their seeds to improve and diversify crops they grow to adapt to changing conditions. These days, we are all faced with new environmental challenges, such as increased flooding, heat and drought – and that is why everyone needs crop diversity: to be able to maintain food security for everyone.”

As part of the week’s activities, the participants were invited to attend the African Union Commission (AU) to discuss the opportunities and constraints of implementing the two agreements. Speaking of the importance of the AU guidelines, that were endorsed by Heads of State at the AU Assembly earlier this year, Mahlet Teshome, Biosafety Expert – Environmental Law, African Union Commission said:

“Africa is blessed with an abundance and variety of genetic resources. The manner in which these genetic resources are used to meet the challenges of the region such as climate change adaptation, food security and poverty alleviation is key. The AU Guidelines cover the range of benefits that may be derived from genetic resources, including plant genetic resources, and proposes access procedures that ensure benefits are shared between providers and users of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. The guidelines and the provisions for Africa are perfectly in sync with the AU’s Agenda 2063 which aspires to a prosperous continent with the means and resources to drive its own development.”

*GEF = The Global Environment Facility