Plant collections and the Convention on Biological Diversity


At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders agreed on a comprehensive strategy for sustainable development – meeting our needs while ensuring that we leave a healthy and viable world for future generations. One of the key agreements adopted at Rio was the Convention on Biological Diversity. This pact among the vast majority of the world’s governments sets out commitments for maintaining the world’s ecological underpinnings as we go about the business of economic development.
The UK, and Ireland are both parties to the Convention.

The Convention establishes three main goals:

  • The conservation of the world’s biological diversity
  • The sustainable use of its components
  • The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of these genetic resources.

The third objective of the CBD, which is also called Article 15, states

  • Genetic resources rest with national governments and are subject to national legislation
  • Access shall be on mutually agreed terms and subject to prior informed consent
  • Sharing in a fair and equitable way the results of research and development and the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources with the Contracting Party providing such resources. Such sharing shall be upon mutually agreed terms

The aim is to ensure that trade and commercial use of genetic resources (i.e. living things) benefits the country(s) from which the plant or animal was first collected. It is hoped that by attaching a genuine, present-day value (not necessarily monetary, but in the transfer of knowledge, building of capacity and training of counterparts in developing nations) to this biodiversity, then the value of protecting this biodiversity will likewise become real and tangible.


It is not just the search for ‘drugs in the rainforest’ that the CBD covers. For centuries the gardens of the west have benefited from the wild plants of Asia, China, central and southern America, South Africa and Australasia. Today we recognise that even a humble garden plant that has been growing in our gardens for a century or more was probably removed from a country of origin when neither permission, nor informed consent was sought. Today horticulture is a billion euro business. Genetic engineering means that even the most microscopic piece of DNA may represent an extremely valuable asset. Thus unlike a mineral mine or oil well, genetic raw materials can be removed from a country of origin and readily synthesised overseas.


It is true that plant diversity is most threatened by vegetation clearance, agriculture and alien plant introductions. Some may therefore argue that restricting free and open access for plant collectors in countries such as China or Mexico will have a negligible effect upon conserving their flora. However this is not what the CBD has been devised to do. It is a framework through which the true value of this genetic resource can be realised by the country of origin. Each time a ‘ new’ introduction is made by underhand methods, then the overall value of that country’s biodiversity is reduced. Even the development of new plant cultivars using plant species from overseas is a small but noticeable depreciation in their genetic resource. The CBD has not been devised simply to end all plant collecting and the horticultural trade. Responsible access to genetic material should allow the source countries to share in the benefits that others may gain. A simple ideal is that if and when a valuable asset is developed then a percentage of the profits should be shared with the country of origin (this does not have to be simply financial). At present many developing countries with a rich biological heritage are understandably suspicious, and if we are ever to see a return to easy access we must all demonstrate good faith from now on.


All responsible horticulturists should take immediate steps to ensure that they do not, through the best of intentions allow the genetic property of other countries to be dissipated. Many of the large Botanic Gardens, such as Edinburgh, Glasnevin and Kew have already implemented very strict CBD guidelines on their own collections. This means that they will only accept, exchange or transfer plants with organizations or individuals they are confident will treat the material with due regard and undertake the same responsibility in the growing and further distribution of these items.
These gardens require that no plant can be accepted without proof that they were collected in a bona fide manner with the appropriate agreements and Prior Informed Consent of the countries of origin.

You can assist the CBD by not buying wild collected material unless you are satisfied that the seed or plants were collected in an appropriate manner, and that the country of origin has sanctioned the selling or distribution of this material. It may seem like a small nicety, but the impact of these many introductions is genuinely harmful and each time you refuse to accept such material then you are doing your bit in preserving and bolstering the value of that countries biodiversity.

However, that said, it is important that some sort of recompense can be channeled back to these countries – the purpose of the CBD is to generate and share that value – and what better way than through gardeners contributing some sort of royalty back to these countries ?
Do you display plants of a particular country, or a species of plant threatened in its native habitat ? What benefit do you gain as a garden ? Would you be prepared to share some of that benefit with the source area in the hope that in so doing you could help to protect what is in effect the headwaters of the very material that beautifies our gardens. It is a sobering thought that nursery and plants sales in the UK is valued at £1.5 billion per year.


A typical MTA would be worded along these lines:

The DONOR intends to honour the letter and spirit of the 1992 CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY in the use of its collections. Accordingly the supply of the material listed below is subject to the following conditions:

  • Recipient may use the material and any progeny or derivatives thereof for non-commercial purposes only.
  • Recipient may not commercialise the material or any progeny or derivatives without obtaining written consent of Donor , which will be consistent withDonor’s policy that benefits be shared equitably with the source country of the material.
  • Recipient will provide Donor with a fair and equitable share of any benefits arising from the use of the material, including research results and publications.
  • Recipient may not transfer the material to any third party without written agreement containing terms no less restrictive than those contained in this Agreement.




The CBD, also known as the Rio Convention provides a comprehensive framework for the triple objective of conserving biological diversity, using natural resources sustainably, and fairly and equitably sharing benefits deriving from the use of genetic resources. The latter objective is of particular importance to developing countries, as they hold most of the world