The Need for Countries to Protect What is Theirs : How a Dutch Patented the Ethiopian National Grain

Ethiopia_Teff3
Teff (Source: Huffington Post)

I am furious and shocked to learn that it is possible for a Dutch man to patent an Ethiopian national food! Seriously? I know about the greed of patents… but some things should be off-limit or not even allowed! Teff has been a staple food in Ethiopia for at least the past 2000 years. It is a gluten-free cereal high in protein, iron and fibre, which is considered a super-food. It is the essence of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines as it is ground into flour to make injera. Truly, there is no Ethiopian food without injera, thus without teff! Imagine my surprise when I learnt that a Dutchman had patented teff in the Netherlands! First of all, I am stunned that someone can patent a natural growing food, or grains, in another country! Is there no end to greed? And then a few hundred years down the line, they will write in history books that teff originated in the Netherlands, not Ethiopia… ! This is how the falsification of history starts! Africa wise up!

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Doro wot on Injera (Injera is made from teff)

For the story, back in 2003, a dozen varieties of teff seeds were sent to Jan Roosjen, a Dutch agronomist in the Netherlands, through a partnership with the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation for research and development. 4 years later, the European Patent Office granted a patent to his company. Later on, when his company went bankrupt, he continued to sell teff products, and then tried to sue another Dutch company that was marketing teff baked goods. This is when it made headlines, and his patent was declared void in the Netherlands, but it is still valid in the rest of Europe; Ethiopia has gotten lawyers to fight for this. Why should Ethiopia even need lawyers for a case that is so obvious? Teff is Ethiopian, end of story! Now the country has to find lawyers to fight… it is like a never-ending cycle made to impoverish the already disadvantaged countries. Is there nothing in international law that stops this? … all these people who study international law don’t see loopholes like this? What if a country is so poor that it cannot afford lawyers, or what if the story had never made international headlines… then Roosjen would have kept benefiting from something that should go to Ethiopian farmers? Should natural food even be allowed to be patented? I leave you here with excerpts and quotes from several Ethiopians about this from the article in BBC Travel… but note that this is not the first time that Ethiopia has fought for its food treasures,  it sued Starbucks for its coffee names in 2007.

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Flag of Ethiopia

… The dispute over who owns teff made international headlines earlier this year after Roosjen tried to sue another Dutch company that was marketing teff baked goods for patent infringement, and his patent was declared void in the Netherlands. When the deadline for an appeal expired in February 2019, many Ethiopians hailed it as a victory on social media.

Ethiopian diplomat Fitsum Arega tweeted that it was great news. “I hope we can learn from this that our national assets must be protected by Ethiopians & friends of #Ethiopia,” he wrote.

But with Roosjen’s patent still in place in other parts of Europe, the war continues. In February [2019], Ethiopia’s attorney general Berhanu Tsegaye tweeted that the government was determined to defend Ethiopia’s legal rights related to teff. “Ethiopia has already deployed a law firm to fight the teff case internationally,” he wrote.

Ethiopia_Coffee map 1
Ethiopia coffee map showing Harar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe (Source: Coffeemaven.com)

It is not the first time Ethiopia has had to protect one of its biggest products, with the country previously going into battle against Starbucks over the use of three premium coffee names. After intense talks, the world’s largest coffee chain and the Ethiopian government reached a licencing agreement allowing Starbucks to sell and market Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe coffee in 2007. According to a report by the World Intellectual Property Organization, the high-profile dispute greatly increased the value of Ethiopian coffee.

Dr Bula Wayessa, who is an expert in indigenous crops, believes the Dutch teff patent stripped millions of Ethiopian farmers of their rights. “It represents a manifestation of global power relations in which multi-million-dollar corporations based in the global north excise cultural appropriation in Third World countries,” he said. “The flaws in the international legal system that give private companies patent ownership without thorough investigation are disproportionally affecting developing countries such as Ethiopia.”

Dr Wayessa, visiting assistant professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz, was born into a teff-farming family in the Oromia Regional State, which is one of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically based regions. He grew up eating injera twice a day and helped cultivate, tend to and harvest the crop after school and in the summer holidays. … He said teff is not just a crop; it is part of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage. “Teff injera is a major common identity marker across more than 80 ethnic groups living in the country,” he said. “It frames Ethiopians’ indigenous food technology and informs their social and national identities by helping to chart social relationships through gathering around the plate and sharing.”

… Sofonias Melese, head of operations at New Ethiopia Tours, said … “Teff is the backbone of our kitchen. We eat it every day – sometimes three times a day – in almost all regions and tribes.”

One thought on “The Need for Countries to Protect What is Theirs : How a Dutch Patented the Ethiopian National Grain

  1. This is simply appalling, Dr. Y. But it reveals the same old-same old scramble for African resources still continues, and in many new guises. There seems to be no legal protection either. International Law is simply ignored by the big nation players.

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