By Paul Schemm | Washington Post
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — For any first-time visitor to an Ethiopian restaurant, the signature experience is tearing off a piece of injera, a pancake-like bread, and using it to scoop up spicy meat or vegetable curries.
The spongy, almost
sourdough-like taste of injera comes from a grain called teff, a tiny
seed found throughout the Ethiopian and Eritrean countryside on golden,
grasslike stalks. Like quinoa before it, teff is slowly hitting the
mainstream in the West, touted as a new, gluten-free superfood high in protein and fiber and low in sugar.
just recently, an obscure Dutch agronomist held the patent for making
pretty much anything out of teff flour, strangling Ethiopia’s ability to
market and sell its millenia-old grain. The tale of how that happened —
and how Ethiopia won back control of its staple crop — is an object
lesson in how the worldwide practice of patenting agricultural products
often harms those in the developing world.
the case of teff, the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation
partnered with a newly formed Dutch company called Health and
Performance Food International (HPFI) in 2005. Ethiopia agreed to
provide HPFI, run by agronomist Jans Roosjen, with a dozen varieties of
teff, which would then be turned into products for the European market.
Proceeds would be divided between the two entities.
venture proved ahead of its time. The market for teff baked goods never
materialized in Europe, and HPFI went bankrupt in 2009. Ethiopia
received only 4,000 euros.
But HPFI had taken out a Dutch patent on teff in 2003 and one from the European Patent Office by 2007. Roosjen obtained the patents by arguing that he was storing and processing teff flour in a unique manner — a claim that was subsequently proved false.
Even after the company ceased to exist, the patents
remained in Roosjen’s possession. He continued to market teff products
with new companies that didn’t need to follow the terms of the original
agreement with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia “found itself
squeezed out of position to utilize its own teff genetic resources — for
example, through collaboration with other foreign companies — in Europe
and wherever else the teff patent might be granted,” wrote Regine
Andersen and Tone Winge in a 2012 study of the case for the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, a Norwegian environmental research foundation.
Such patent problems are increasingly common. With populations exploding and companies experimenting with high-yield plants, designing and patenting seeds has become a big business. A survey in the scientific journal Nature noted that three-quarters of plant DNA patents are held by private companies — half of them in the hands of 14 multinational corporations.
Andersen and Winge highlighted how countries can
enter into such agreements without experienced negotiators or fully
understanding the implications of patents.
to the report, the Ethiopian side later concluded that “the company
took advantage of the goodwill and trust of the Ethiopian negotiators,
who were looking for a long-term relationship.”
the deal fell apart, the report concluded, “a financially poor
developing country has few prospects of achieving justice, as long as
there are no support measures from the side of the user countries.”
years of trying to negotiate back the rights to its own grain, the
Ethiopian attorney general’s office announced in May 2018 that it was
filing a case against Roosjen at the International Court of Arbitration
But it was a separate case that
eventually broke Roosjen’s hold on teff. Bakels, another Dutch company,
had been marketing its own teff baked goods. When Roosjen sued them for
patent infringement, the Dutch patent office declared that Roosjen’s
patent was void — a decision then backed up a court at The Hague. On
Wednesday, the deadline for an appeal expired.
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