How a corporation patented Ethiopia’s most common staple
In 2005, the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity and Conservation partnered up with the Dutch company Health and Performance Food International (HPFI) to marketize one of Ethiopia’s most valuable staples, the teff grain – the main ingredient found in injera bread, now widely dubbed a cosmopolitan ‘superfood’.
The agronomist Jans Roojsen, who spearheaded the project under HPFI, applied for the patent in 2003 and gained it in 2007, thus acquiring the rights to market, sell or import the grain as they wanted without the Ethiopian partnership – meaning that HPFI alone had the rights for the teff grain.
In the beginning, this was seen as a profitable exchange. The Dutch were to be supplied with grains and indigenous foods to market in Europe and local producers were supposed to be paid for their stock, benefiting from a so-called ‘development fund’.
But, the success of the grain never materialized and HPFI went bankrupt in 2009. The agreement with Ethiopia no longer existed and the country only managed to get €4,000 (USD$ 4,479.00) in profits over the five years of cooperation.
Eventually, according to a report made by a Norwegian environmental research institute in 2012, the founders of the Dutch project bought back the patent on teff for €60,000 (USD$67,000).
The report calls the move a clear case of ‘biopiracy’, writing that ‘Ethiopia found itself discarded, prevented from using its own genetic resources in several European countries.’
It wasn't until a different Dutch company, Bakels, had been profiting off teff baked goods that Roojsen filed a lawsuit against them for patent infringement, ironically. The Hague ultimately threw out Roojsen’s claim, effectively invalidating the patent.
After this ruling, Ethiopia regained the rights to produce teff based goods risk free, but Roojsen’s patent is still in effect in Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria and Britain. The Ethiopian government is still vowing to fight this through legal and diplomatic means.
But as Almaz Ebba, the Dutch Ethiopian embassy minister said, ‘This is not just about the money. We cannot accept that two business partners get a patent for our most important food.’
Last year on 19 May, the Ethiopian Attorney General’s office announced that they were filling a case against Roojsen for the rights over teff. The effects on Ethiopian companies trying to sell the grain in countries where the patent is still effective is unclear, and could, like Bakels, face a lawsuit.
But what Roojsen’s dealings reveal, is a form of ‘culinary colonialism’.
Philosopher Lisa Heldke coined the term to describe how culinary practices were shaped by colonial expansion. Part of this meant that, when exported, indigenous foods were rebranded in order to appeal to western consumers, keeping just enough association with the unfamiliar to feel ‘exotic’, but ultimately removing cultural associations with indigenous communities.
Found, not discovered
As it stands, patents only reinforce the idea that grain can be owned and discovered in much the same way sugar, coffee and chocolate once were. In fact, Roojsen claimed that he was the first person to create a ‘stable gluten-free teff product’ that was different from injera because it contained wheat and therefore, was not gluten-free.
The story of teff is an indictment of current models of agricultural ownership, set up to further reproduce systems of exploitation. As it stands, 75 per cent of plant DNA is currently owned by private companies. Of that number, 50 per cent are held by 14 transnational corporations.
The effect of agricultural patenting in the Global South has been severe – from South Africa having to argue their claim (and winning) on geographic ownership of rooibos tea to more recently PepsiCo dropping their lawsuit against Indian farmers for growing a potato that had been copyrighted for the sole use of Lay’s chips production.
So how do we disrupt culinary colonialism? By returning the power back to smaller farmers – for example, La Via Campesina an international movement formed of medium-scale farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous peoples, migrants and agricultural workers from 70 countries to defend agricultural sovereignty, we can disrupt the wider constellation of oppressive power tactics that disproportionately affect those most marginalized.
And in an age of ‘superfoods’, and nutritional ultra scrutiny, surely it’s within our power to think about, not just what’s in our food, but how it got there – to cast aside ‘melting pot’ branding and become food critical; to understand food as a vehicle for social and cultural history, as another site of struggle.
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