The international plant genetic resources system is a loosely coordinated, often politicized network among national germplasm collections, which has encouraged the exploration, collection, evaluation, preservation and distribution of germplasm. During the last two decades, the system has been the focus of major debates, characterized as Seed Wars, over the international control of plant genetic resources. Key organizations such as the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, and the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity have attempted to address the central issues of access to genetic resources including elite lines, funding and responsibility for biodiversity protection, treatment of biotechnology and intellectual property rights, and the technical and social challenges of conserving genetic materials. Despite these efforts, all nations are caught in a paradox of competition and cooperation. While each nation wishes to capture as much of the world's genetic resources as possible, each is dependent on many other nations for a continued supply of these dynamic and widely dispersed resources. The paradox, however, is not felt equally by all nations with some, particularly among the developed nations, apparently capable of both competing and cooperating successfully. Nonetheless, in both the short run, and particularly in the long run, it is in the best interest of all nations in this global community to find efficient and socially just ways to cooperate in conservation of biodiversity and to use it sustainably and equitably.
The research was supported, in part, by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Ethics and Values Studies Program and the USDA Cooperative State Research Service. This paper is based, in part, on a paper presented at the 1993 annual meeting of the Crop Science Society of America and on material to appear in a forthcoming book, Biodiversity/ Cultural Diversity: The Plant Germplasm Controversy in Cultural Context (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln), by L. Busch, W.B. Lacy, Burkhardt, D. Hemken, J. Morago-Rojel, J. de Souza Silva, and T. Koponen.