Citing the erosion of agriculturally important genetic resources,a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) hascalled for a free exchange of germplasm among nations. Thecommittee made a series of recommendations to help preservegenetic resources in a report released this week titled"Managing Global Genetic Resources: Agricultural Crop Issuesand Policies."

"Genetic erosion is occurring not only in nature, but also innational and international germplasm collections that wereestablished to conserve genetic resources," Peter Day, Directorof the Center for Agricultural Molecular Biology at RutgersUniversity and chair of the NAS Committee on Managing GlobalGenetic Resources, said at a public briefing on the report. Hesaid that "some of the minor seed banks are in fact seedmorgues."

Developing countries, the source of most agricultural geneticresources, will need financial assistance to maintain seedbanks, said Day. "Based on our criteria, only 30 to 40 basecollection germplasm banks worldwide would be needed tosafeguard genetic resources," he said, at a cost of about $240million.

The report addresses the efforts of industrialized countries toprotect and capitalize on their investment in crop plantimprovement, noting that, while the developing countries thatsupply raw germplasm material feel exploited when it is soldback to them. The NAS committee recommended that a treatybe negotiated that defines a compromise position onintellectual property and free flow of crop germplasm. Dayobserved that the biological diversity treaty is focused more onnaturally occurring species.

In addition, the report recommends creation of an internationalpayment mechanism -- most likely linked to the value of seedsales -- the proceeds of which would support genetic diversityconservation programs. And third, it calls for strengtheningplant breeding and building biotechnology research capacity inthe developing world.

The report further urges that public institutions not respond tothe commercialization of germplasm by enacting restrictionsthat could limit the use of genetic resources by developingnations. "If they find it necessary to patent materials, theyshould provide royalty-free licenses for the benefit of allcountries," Day asserted.

In addition, the report contains scientific recommendationsrelating to research and management of crop collections. Itspecifically mentions the effects of biotechnology on geneticresources. Day said biotechnology provides alternatives toconserving whole organisms and assists the exchange ofgermplasm. However, he commented that "until biotechnologybecomes more user-friendly, it is best regarded as a potentiallyuseful adjunct to germplasm conservation rather than a meansof revolutionizing our work."

Copies of the NAS report are available for $49.95 by calling 1(800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313.

-- David Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.