Knowledge for Development

Plant genetic resources: knowledge for agricultural and rural development in ACP countries

Author: F.O. Anno-Nyako

Date: 05/06/2006



Genetic resources have become topical issue in international agricultural, environmental, Intellectual Property, and trade policy circles. It has gained an overwhelming prominence in these areas of endeavour, not only for its conservation significance, but also the unprecedented benefits that accrue from the sustainable use of these resources. Specifically, plant genetic resources are any material of plant, containing functional units of heredity of actual and potential value. Genetic resources generally at the local, national and international levels, play a critical role in the lives of the people of African, Caribbean and Pacific Island (ACP) countries. The people and the communities, in general, of these countries depend on these resources for their economic, social and cultural well-being. Yet, the full potential of PGR is yet to be tapped. The ACP countries and other economies could benefit significantly in the global search for new sources of food stocks, medicines, fiber etc.


Some international agreements and treaties have been regularized basically to provide conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use, in harmony with the convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for sustainable agriculture and food security. The lack of such institutional and legal capacity restricts legitimate research and leaves the interests of African nations and other developing countries and their resources open to possible inequitable exploitation. Despite these needs and international commitments to promote access, most developing countries especially African countries, lack effective legal and regulatory frameworks governing genetic resources. For instance, in the saline lake in Kenya, an enzyme, which had been discovered, is being used to make blue jeans, yet none of the benefits are accruing to the community in Kenya. This is one of several reasons why regulation of genetic resources is vital especially considering intellectual property rights, economic development, poverty alleviation, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, indigenous people’s rights, habitat conservation, industrial development, international research efforts, and even climate change.

The ACP countries, especially those in Africa, are abound with wealth of biological diversity and traditional innovations and the ensuing debate, as to who should have access to genetic resources and to whom the benefits of these genetic resources should accrue, can be solved when national efforts are made to fulfill the commitments made in international and regional agreements.

Destruction of biological diversity threatens the life-support system of all humans by undermining the ecological processes that provide the ingredients for our food, medicine, shelter and livelihoods. Just as local knowledge and practices provide the basis for ensuring food security, such indigenous knowledge and use of resources have often played significant roles in the preservation of local biodiversity. One of the major aims of the policies of most governments is to improving the knowledge base of genetic resources. Such policies target the economic potential of these resources, identification of the real and potential users of these resources, planning and sustainable use of these resources, and development of ex-situ farms and support for research on new uses of genetic resources. Consequently, this rich information possessed by the people/community could be utilized sustainably for both agricultural and rural development.

As knowledge for agricultural development

Plant genetic resources for agricultural development are crucial for sustainable production, providing the biological basis for food security and supporting the livelihoods of the world’s six (6) billion population. These resources are the plant breeder’s most important raw material and the farmer’s most essential input for improving the quality and productivity of crops.

These resources, many of which are as a result of human interventions, have consciously than unconsciously, been selected and improved upon by farmers since the origins of agriculture. It therefore affords the opportunity of developing different varieties like high yielding, drought and disease resistant plants.

The role of genetic resources in agriculture has shaped the development of humanity through the past 10,000 years. During these period, the principles of cultivation of crops and husbanding of livestock spread from a relatively few centres of origin to the whole globe. Currently, genetic resources have made it possible for several crops of certain origins to be found elsewhere and these significant breakthroughs are necessary for food security. The role of genetic resource in agriculture development is far broader than envisaged. Many forms of inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides are based on knowledge of the genetic resources.

While discussion of the importance of genetic resources to agriculture has focused on the production of crops for food, references to horticultural export crops hint at their wider significance in non-food fields such as forestry and floriculture. These areas are particularly important as one of the major sources of foreign exchange for countries like Cameroon, Kenya and South Africa.

The creation of a germplasm pool or gene bank is not only important for the researchers and smallholder farmers, but also for the maintenance of the agricultural ecosystems. Majority of breeding programmes for any improved variety depend upon access to an enormous range of varieties that are slowly crossed to produce an improved variety. Access to plant genetic resources has the potential to contribute to ecosystem conservation activities in a number of areas.

Directly, the exploration and cataloguing of biodiversity associated with access can be extremely useful - it allows detailed identification for conservation and provides information on the interactions between the components that comprise an ecosystem. The less direct aspects of the relationship between conservation of access to genetic resources relate to the concept of sustainable use that has become the basis of much conservation policy and discourse in recent years.

Finally, agriculture and genetic resources are inseparable. Even crop production in a sealed greenhouse or the most intensive form of livestock production depends on the characteristics of the crops or animals in question and a number of other factors in their food and environment that are based on genetic resources. In this context, it is very clear that genetic resources are fundamental to improving the food security of ACP countries, an issue of vital importance in many parts of the continent. Furthermore, the importance of these resources to the agriculture economy, the basis of most African economies and source of livelihood for most of the continent’s people as well as the basis of the source of substantial foreign exchange cannot be underestimated.

As knowledge for rural development

Naturally, the existing and potential fields of use of plant genetic resources go beyond food and agriculture applications. There are several opportunities and uses that could provide major developmental interventions in various countries. There is substantial evidence to indicate that access to genetic resources can enable leverage in technical cooperation, training and provision of capital equipment among countries. It may be easier under several circumstances to negotiate for such benefits than to seek high royalty or milestone payments. A country with policy on plant genetic resources has some form of capacity building as a priority. These tend to be the same in institutions whether state or international.
The use of plant genetic resource in the field of medicine and public health is probably the highest profile. An example of their economic importance and influence is the concept of ‘green gold’.
Knowledge of these plants of medicinal importance plays a major role in generating revenue and in some cases earning foreign exchange for the traditional leaders or the government for rural development. This is because the scale of the use of medicinal plants is manifold.


In conclusion, the global importance of PGR is enormous and could be positively exploited for development in a sustainable manner.

Knowledge in Genetic resources could enhance development in several areas including sustainable land use, economics and trade, quarantine and regulatory strategies as well as public health and tourism.

An emerging but potentially disturbing trend that could adversely affect development is the increasing global movement of people and products which inadvertently facilitate introduction of alien species into new ecosystems and consequently influencing the modification of genetic diversity and plant genetic resources in affected ecologies. A typical example Broussonetia papyrefera (Paper mulberry) and Chromolaena odorata which in recent times has become a nuisance in forests and farm lands in several countries especially the West African sub-region. Where they have established, germplasm of food crops are smothered to the disadvantage of agricultural development. Fortunately innovative sciences of rural dwellers and local farmers have in many instances made good of such obnoxious alien species although insignificantly for some developmental purpose to improve livelihood and alleviate rural poverty.

May 2006

Dr. F.O.Anno-Nyako, CSIR-AFFS, P.O.Box M 32, Accra, Ghana.