TWN Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Sept13/01)
20 September 2013
Third World Network

An assessment of private ex situ seed collections

With the dismantling of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research's (CGIAR) SINGER database [1], the transparency of the Multilateral System (MLS) of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) [2] has been on the wane. For most of the 64 key global crops exchanged in the MLS, such as potatoes and sorghum, online references no longer provide important data on transfers of these genetic resources to universities, institutes, and other plant breeders.

As described in a paper by Claudio Chiarollo and Hope Shand (An Assessment of Private Ex Situ Seed Collections: The Private Sector's Participation in the Multilateral System of the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture), it is further distressing that commercial breeders refused to cooperate with a survey to gather basic data on the parameters of the seed industry's participation in the MLS. Only one of 18 major seed companies based in OECD countries answered the survey. Independent seed companies outside the OECD were only moderately more transparent, with 3 out of 12 responding. The International Seed Federation, an industry lobby, offered a reply that is completely opaque with respect to the key data requested in the survey, and which the authors reproduce in the paper.

Indeed, Chiarollo and Shand's paper may be most notable for what it doesn't contain: data offering insight into key geneflows inside the MLS.  This is not for lack of effort by the authors, but rather lack of cooperation by industry, a heavyweight user and prime beneficiary of the Multilateral System.

The deepening secrecy surrounding transfer and utilization of the farmers' varieties and other public seeds placed in the MLS bodes poorly for the ITPGRA's future. It will impair efforts to reform the Treaty's anemic benefit sharing system, which many governments and civil society groups regard as flawed.

Accountability cannot take root as long as transparency remains severely undervalued across the MLS - from the CGIAR centers that don't publish seed transfer data, to the commercial users who won't reveal what they have. Urgently needed progress on benefit sharing thus remains stymied by the paucity of basic information on who is doing what with the Multilateral System's seeds.

The full report is available at


[1] SINGER's replacement, GENESYS (, debuted in May 2011, yet still lacks basic data and functions of the system it replaced, including information on germplasm transfers, accurate indication of whether or not varieties are part of the MLS, and use of the ITPGRFA standard Material Transfer Agreement.

[2] For more information about the ITPGRFA and its Multilateral System, see