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Is It an Act Of Biopiracy Over Ethiopian Most Critical Crop Teff

By Demissew Sertse
Tigrai Online May 01 2008

Owing to its high ecological heterogeneity coupled with its geographic advantages and endeavors of its people to maintain its genetic resource, Ethiopia currently is listed among the top eight generically rich nations of the world. The famous Russian genetic resource explorer, Vavilove once mentioned Ethiopia as one of his 12 countries of origin and diversification of crop plants and their wild relatives. Today, Ethiopia is assumed to refuge about 6500 to 7000 higher plant species of which 12%  are endemic (exist only in Ethiopia) and over 1400 wild vertebrate (not considering domesticated ones) species which 85 of them are reported to be endemic. Yet the country is believed to be highly endowed with smaller flora and fauna including microbial species. Ethiopia does not only have high species diversity but also high genetic diversity with in a species which obviously is attributable to its diverse ecosystems and historical intervention of its people. 

Although these genetic resources are ofcourse the properties of Ethiopia, they virtually are also assets of our world. Hence, the other world too has a stake on these resources.  This however can only be true if and only if the other world acknowledges the ownership of the resources and can share the profit that it is gaining from these resources to the people who maneuvered (made it valuable) and preserved the resources for millennia.    As long as these advantages of the country and its citizen are protected I personally can not figure out any reason that Ethiopia will hesitate to welcome any body who wants to use its genetic resources and to further work together for better mutual benefits out of these resources. 

However, some groups seemingly are walking against the above said rights of Ethiopia. For most of us it is not old news that the American company Star Buck attempted to harvest profit at the expense of Ethiopian poor coffee growers.  Thanks to all who stood for Ethiopian farmers, this has recently been settled.  Once a virus named Barley Yellow Dwarf Mosaic Virus (BYD MV) made Barley in united state out of production. It was then a resistant barley germplasm of Ethiopian origin that enabled the American Farmers to grow Barley. Due to this germplasm the American Farmers are reportedly saving an amount of about US$150 million per year. But I have never heard any benefit share to Ethiopian Farmers who contributed the germaterial. Some groups confuse a support that is given to Ethiopia in the form of aid with the country’s right to claim. Aid is based on the willingness of the donor. Benefit share from a profit that is generated out of one’s resource is the right of the resource owner as far as the profit is being made through a wise process.  

Currently, starting from some 4-5 years ago, an attempt to acquire “an intellectual property right” on Ethiopian most critical crop, Teff (Eragrostis tef) has been going on by a Dutch (The Netherlands) company, Soil and Crop (S & C). In applications published by the European Patent office in March 2005 (Pub.No.WO 2005/025319 A1) and US patent office in December 2006 (Pub.No. US 2006/0286240 A1) this company claimed “a patent over Processing of Teff flour” which actually is claiming on the inherent genetic quality of the crop. The same company had made an other attempt to take away the property right of this crop from Ethiopia which latter was silenced by the Canadian NGO Coalition Against Biopiracy after publicly awarding the company “Captain Hook Award” in 2004. 

Then this company went to negotiate with the Ethiopian government to have access to 20 (12 owned by the then Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization-EARO and 8 co-owned by EARO and S&C) Teff Varieties. After this agreement once again company reinitiated its patent right claim for possessing Teff flour. However, based on our recent experimental results on Teff flour and the traditional knowledge already exists among Ethiopians, the inventions that the company applied for patent neither seem neither noble nor legitimate for the following reasons below.      

The Company’s claim Vs our recent experimental findings on Teff flour

According to the application, the company claimed Teff flour falling number at least 250, preferably 300, more preferably 340 and most preferably 380 for backing quality. In the application document, it further mentioned that bread quality increases using flours of falling numbers even higher than 400. The application document however, has skipped explaining the contribution of inherent genetic potential of the crop for such records.

Results from our recent experiment determination of the falling numbers of 19 Ethiopian teff varieties indicated that the above falling number records claimed by the company are attributable to the inherent genetic quality of the crop. The result asserted that falling number of the crop highly varied among the varieties.  Consequently, falling numbers for flour passed through 132 micron sieve ranged from 223 for a variety named DZ-01-99 to remarkably above 400 for four varieties (DZ – 01 – 787, DZ – 01 – 1281, DZ – 01 – 2675, and DZ – Cr – 37).  This tells that the above claimed falling numbers most likely are due to the inherent genetic quality. Hence, our results undermine effort made by the company to attain the flour quality for which it has applied for patent. In principle the company can not claim ownership right related to the genetic resource of the crop. The property right of Teff as genetic resource goes to Ethiopian farmers who preserved and maneuvered the crop for millennia.  This also has clearly been stated in the agreement between the Company and the Ethiopian government.  Therefore, the company appears to be illegitimate to claim the genetic qualities of the crop or any quality products attributable to the inherent genetic potential of the crop.

Attempts of claiming over traditional knowledge and creating confusion.

In its application the company claimed high falling number (better flour quality) from grain stored for longer time than recently harvested grain as new finding. The traditional teff consumers obviously prefer and accordingly pay higher price for teff grain stored for long period. The Ethiopian mothers mention the qualities of such grain for making Injera (Traditional deit of Ethiopia). Consequently, Teff grain most commonly is consumed after being stored for several months and only a rare case that it would be used immediately after harvest. This knowledge which has already been gained by Ethiopians due to their long experience with the crop however was not only ignored in the application but also it was apparently wrongly stated. The document stated as if consuming teff immediately after harvesting were usual traditionally. In so doing the company is not only trying to claim over the traditional knowledge of Ethiopian but also trying to misinform the other world about the Ethiopian traditional knowledge that could have potentially be shared to others.  In order to avoid confusion between new researches that can be planned by the company and the traditional knowledge, as per the agreement it entered with the Ethiopian government, the company should submit research proposal to the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity (IBC) and gets approval.

The company also tried to confuse others by misinforming how Injera is made. In the application it mentioned that Injera is usually made from a flour mixture of equal parts of Teff and Wheat flours. The common and best quality ingera known to most Ethiopians however is the one made from pure Teff flour. Wheat in particular is mixed with Teff very rarely despite the fact that mixing flour of other crops like sorghum, millet, maize, barley and recently rice is fairly common.

Issues in the agreement that seem to be violated.

As it has been indicated above there is agreement that the company entered with the Ethiopian government through IBC and the then Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization (EARO-EIAR). Some of the points included in agreement however, seem to be violated by the company.

  1. According to the agreement the company is expected to acknowledge the centre of origin of the crop to be Ethiopia in all of its publications or applications. However, no where in the application document the company mentioned the center of origin of the crop to be Ethiopia. Instead, it mentioned other nations as teff growers which seems an attempt to distance Teff from Ethiopia.
  2. According to the agreement the company was accessed to 20 varieties as mentioned above. In its application however, it has listed 21 varieties where an extra one variety has been included. Yet it failed to mention the source of any of the varieties.
  3.  As it has been stated above the company should have submitted its proposal to IBC to avoid confusion with traditional knowledge and its findings. Instead, it tried to make confusion by discrediting the most commonly known traditional knowledge and experiences of Ethiopian about the crop. It further attempted to get property right on this already existing knowledge.   

Generally, all the claims in the application and evolutions regarding Teff by S & C (HPFI) seem to be an act of biopiracy over Ethiopian most critical genetic resource (Teff) and the traditional knowledge of the owner of the resource. Therefore, I sincerely urge the Ethiopian government, Concerned International Bodies, Diplomats, Citizens and Ethiopian friends to defend the property right of Ethiopian farmers who should have instead been prized for preserving and acquainting teff as best human food for the world.  

We are willing to share our diverse genetic resources for long-lasting mutual benefit but we do not want to be looted or cheated!


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