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Most global seed companies have established national or international partnerships to conserve genetic diversity and adhere to national laws and international treaties, often through in-kind or financial donations. However, few companies demonstrate activities that go beyond legal obligations.
This measurement area seeks to clarify how companies support the conservation of genetic resources, ranging from in-company activities to sharing the benefits arising from company use of publicly available genetic material.
As the growth of the formal seed sector can reduce local crop diversity conserved on farms and in communities, seed companies have a role to play in limiting the impact of this trend. This can be done in various ways, starting with corporate commitments in this area.
Two treaties that are important for the conservation and use of genetic resources are the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its supplementary agreement the Nagoya Protocol, and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). The CBD governs all biological resources, whereas the ITPGRFA is more specific in addressing food agrobiodiversity conservation and use, and hence is more directly related to the business of seed companies
KWS and Syngenta publicly disclose their support for the ITPGRFA. The treaty, which falls under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, aims to guarantee food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture as well as the fair and equitable benefit-sharing arising from their use.
These two companies have also committed to working toward a sustainable solution for the conservation and use of all crops, not only those within their respective portfolios, thereby demonstrating an inclusive approach to agrobiodiversity.
Most companies are engaged in the conservation and use of genetic diversity. Advanta and East-West Seed state that their own gene banks are an example of the conservation of genetic resources, which includes maintaining public accessions, wild species and/or local and exotic germplasm.
In addition to conserving their own germplasm, companies work in partnership with various actors, such as gene banks, to which they provide financial or in-kind donations.
Corteva Agriscience, Syngenta and KWS have made financial donations to the Endowment Fund of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, demonstrating support for this institute with a global mandate for long-term genetic resources conservation.
Another example is a multi-party agreement through which Syngenta, Enza Zaden, Bejo, Rijk Zwaan and Bayer provide financial and in-kind support to the Center for Genetic Resources (CGN) at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, enabling it to expand its collections, refresh seed samples and evaluate collections for important traits. Sakata has also sponsored CGN collecting trips of the wild relatives of index vegetables in Eastern Europe.
Eight of the 13 companies (62%) conserve genetic resources through their direct and indirect support for public gene banks. As an example of a more indirect support, Advanta, among others, is a member of various consortia affiliated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which holds important crop genetic diversity ex situ (in gene banks, i.e. outside its natural habitat).
Programs or partnerships that also involve the conservation and use of genetic diversity in farmers’ fields or informal seed systems are generally lacking.
As part of the ITPGRFA and the CBD, access and benefit-sharing (ABS) refers to the way in which companies obtain genetic resources and how they share the benefits that result from their use, thereby contributing to international efforts to promote the conservation and use of genetic resources. Contributions can be either monetary or in-kind. A majority – 85% – of the global seed companies have made monetary or in-kind contributions within the framework of the ITPGRFA. Sakata has signed ABS contracts with signatories to the CBD, such as the Government of Indonesia, to acquire genetic resources. The company returns a portion of its profits to source countries from where genetic resources are derived.
In terms of in-kind contributions, East-West Seed supports regional gene banks, including in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, by reviving old germplasm collections, characterizing accessions that have not yet been documented and conducting conservation-related research and training.
To ensure compliance with ABS and disclose the source of germplasm used to develop proprietary varieties, companies should have track and trace systems for monitoring the flow of germplasm in their breeding programs. Most companies use customized track and trace systems for their genetic resources in accordance with the ITPGRFA. Bayer, East-West Seed and Syngenta all use dedicated IT programs and describe the systems they use in depth, including where they source accessions and the methods by which they catalog and monitor their ABS agreements.
In each measurement areas activities or approaches are identified that stand out or can be considered innovative in the industry. They contribute to the score of a company through leadership indicators.
Bayer was the first seed company to make a monetary use-based contribution to the ITPGRFA’s Benefit-sharing Fund. This contribution represents a portion of Bayer’s revenue for vegetable varieties that were developed with material from public gene banks, putting the company at the forefront of industry efforts to advance genetic resources conservation and use policies.
Limagrain is playing a leading role in developing and gaining buy-in from the seed industry for a ‘subscription-only model’ for ABS. Instead of making one-off payments for each use of a genetic resource, it is envisaged that companies will contribute a percentage of their annual seed sales and licensing turnover for so-called ‘Annex 1’ crops as listed under the ITPGRFA, ensuring an ongoing and consistent contribution to the treaty’s Benefit-sharing Fund. This initiative is currently under discussion.