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.
Until 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.
In 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.
The 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.
According 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.”
Once 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.”
After 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 in Paris.
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.
Outrage over the teff patents has bubbled continuously on Ethiopian social media, and Roosjen’s decision not to appeal was hailed as victory — even if it was partial one. While Ethiopia can once again market its teff in the Netherlands, Roosjen’s patents remain in force in Belgium, Germany, Britain, Austria and Italy.
The Ethiopian attorney general’s office has since issued a statement that the ruling was critical to its own efforts to one day restore its “full ownership of teff.”