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Crop genetic resources are the basis of agricultural production. However,
crop genetic resources are largely public goods, so private incentives for
genetic resource conservation may fall short of achieving public objectives.
Within the U.S. germplasm system, certain crop collections lack sufficient
diversity to reduce vulnerability to pests and diseases. This report
examines the role of genetic resources, genetic diversity, and efforts to
value genetic resources, June 2005.
Genetic resources provide the fundamental mechanics that enable plants to
convert soil, water and sunlight into something of critical value to
humans?food. Diverse genetic resources allow humans to select and breed
plants and animals with desired characteristics, thus increasing
U.S. agricultural productivity more than doubled over the last century
(Ahearn et al., 1998), and much of this productivity increase came from
rapidly rising crop yields. Half the yield gains in major U.S. cereal crops
since the 1930s are attributed to genetic improvements (OTA, 1987).
But demand for agricultural commodities continues to grow, and environmental
conditions change, so continued productivity growth?and the genetic
diversity that helps sustain it?remains important. Genetic diversity can be
conserved in the form of diverse cultivated varieties in farmers? fields,
ecosystems that contain wild relatives of cultivated varieties, and/or
germplasm collections that contain samples of wild and cultivated species.
Each option is characterized by different costs and benefits, making it
difficult to determine the optimal mix of conservation strategies.
But each also shares a common feature. The use of genetic resources by one
farmer or plant breeder does not generally preclude their use by another, so
private incentives to hold and protect genetic resources are generally lower
than their value to users as a group or society as a whole. This means that
in the absence of appropriate public measures (and underlying research),
private efforts to conserve genetic resources are likely to fall short of
the conservation levels that are optimal for society.
Previous researchers have contributed to our knowledge about the use and
conservation of genetic resources. The National Research Council published a
detailed review of the National Plant Germplasm System that included
extensive recommendations to improve the system (NRC, 1991).
A second, related book presented a broader look at the management of genetic
resources (NRC, 1993) and included chapters on economic value and ownership.
However, economic methodology has evolved rapidly since this report was
released, as have the policy instruments that are used to protect and
exchange genetic resources.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations developed a
report based on studies submitted by member countries. The State of the
World?s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (1996b and 1998)
was a useful snapshot of genetic resource conservation and technological
options, but provided minimal economic information such as incentive
structures or policy options.
In 1997, the U.S. General Accounting Office presented a systematic analysis
of the management of the U.S. national genebank system. Recently, the
International Food Policy Research Institute published a set of research
briefs focused on gene bank valuation. These last two reports focused only
on gene banks, and not on all three genetic conservation options.
All these previous reports have been useful, but recent developments in the
international exchange of genetic resources call for a concise and current
summary of genetic resource conservation in an economic framework. This
report focuses on our current understanding of the value of genetic
resources, trends in genetic diversity (and the economic incentives that
affect them), and recent strategies for protecting genetic resources
(including the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and
Agriculture, which entered into force in June 2004).
Full Report: Crop Genetic Resources; an Economic Appraisal (PDF):
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