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From Collection to Cultivation


Post-doctoral project: Ryan Nehring (project member, 2020–2022)

The management of global crop diversity hinges on the open exchange of genetic plant material between countries. In 2001, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture established a multilateral system of fair access and exchange, or a global plant gene pool. 147 countries have committed to the treaty’s agreed upon exchange of a select 35 food crops and 29 forage crops. In each of the countries, public research agencies manage the collection, conservation and use of plant genetic material. This system of ‘genetic multilateralism’ is now under a dual threat. On the one hand, government funding for public agricultural research institutions worldwide has been in decline since the 2000s. On the other hand, the rise of authoritarian populist governments in countries such as the Philippines, Turkey, India, and Brazil have signified protectionist measures in the sharing of plant genetic material. 

This project focuses on one such country: Brazil. Brazil is considered to be one of the most gene-rich countries in the world; a 'biodiversity hotspot', or 'gene rich' country. It was also in Brazil where the infamous theft of rubber plants by Henry Wickham in the nineteenth century undermined the country’s monopoly over the market and decimated the economy. The historical exploitation of genetic materials from 'gene rich' countries to 'gene poor' countries has long undermined the multilateral agreement for the open exchange of plant genetic resources. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2016 signified a wave of privatisation and exploitation of natural resources in the country. The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), a public entity, is facing extinction and is the institution responsible for managing the country’s national seed bank. This project will draw on the case of Brazil to analyse the historical role of international treaties and national governments in the development and potential decline of a global gene pool. 

Keywords: Authoritarian populism, global gene pool, intellectual property, genetic multilateralism


Ryan Nehring, 'Digitising Biopiracy? The Global Governance of Plant Genetic Resources in the Age of Digital Sequencing Information,' Third World Quarterly (June 2022).