Science - March 18, 2004

Wageningen researchers involved in international conflict over teff

A Canadian non-profit organisation has charged the Dutch company S&C with biopiracy. Aided by Wageningen researchers, the company improves varieties of teff, a grain crop that originated in Ethiopia, and S&C now wants to obtain a patent for its production.

Negotiations with the Ethiopian government on how to share the profits are progressing slowly, but the company is nevertheless proceeding with its patent applications. The Canadian organisation awarded the company the ‘Captain Hook Biopiracy Award’. The organisation claims the company is stealing Ethiopia’s genetic property. Is there any truth to this allegation?

Soil and Crop Improvement (S&C), a Dutch company, wants to have the Dutch flour-producer Koopmans make products such as flour and bread using teff. The advantage of teff is that it produces gluten-free flour, which is a suitable ingredient in gluten-free diets and sports foods. Hans Turkensteen, financial director of Soil and Crop Improvement, explains that the company has to apply for property protection of the products in order to gain sufficient return on its research investments into improvements and potential uses of teff. Applied Plant Research (PPO), of Wageningen UR, is involved in cultivation research to make it possible to grow teff in the colder Dutch climate. The Van Hall Institute has provided advice on the use of teff in gluten-free products. Larenstein higher agricultural education college has advised the company in its contacts with the Ethiopian authorities. In cooperation with Larenstein, S&C has made agreements with the Ethiopian authorities on profit sharing. The company has agreed that ten euros of compensation will be paid to Ethiopia for every hectare of teff sewn outside of Ethiopia. The company will also deposit five percent of net profits in a fund which it will use, together with Larenstein, to support Ethiopian farmers, for instance, by promoting a commercial approach to teff cultivation. Until a profit is made on teff, the company will deposit twenty thousand euros annually in that fund. Ethiopia now wants to revise these agreements, and a committee has been appointed in Ethiopia to study this. Because negotiations with the Ethiopian authorities were taking much longer, according to Turkensteen, the firm has proceeded with its patent applications.

Pat Mooney, director of the non-profit organisation ETC in Canada, is not impressed. He reported from Canada: “First of all the company is attempting to patent varieties of the crop itself, and not the product, and that is prohibited by European regulations. Secondly, it appears that if the Ethiopian government does not want to negotiate, the company still intends to proceed with the patent application procedures.” Mooney made it clear that it is not the development of new teff varieties that he objects to, but ‘the games the company is playing with the Ethiopian government’.

Turkensteen of Soil and Crop Improvement does not want to say what the exact nature is of the two patent applications currently being considered. The applications were submitted last summer and during the application period, which lasts about eighteen months, their content remains a secret. Turkensteen also says that the Ethiopian side is responsible for the long period of time it has taken for the Ethiopian authorities to amend the agreement. “I invited them for a discussion, but it took a long time before they responded. Now we are going there at the end of March to meet with them.’’

Dr Bert Visser, director of the Centre for Genetic Resources has in his capacity as the Focal Point on Access and Benefit Sharing for the Convention on Biological Diversity (a function created by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture), asked the company to proceed carefully with the sharing of advantages of potential patents. According to Turkensteen, the management of Plant Research International has also asked the company to remove links to PPO from its website.

Turkensteen is very angry about this. Speaking on the telephone he said: “You are from the university’s newspaper? Go ahead and write that the university has to stop this bullshit. I think the position the university has taken in supporting us is good, but I can’t appreciate that it is apparently ashamed of us and doesn’t want to be associated with us. That organisation in Canada is a splinter group of anti-globalists. What we are doing is very legitimate. I think it is strange that the university is taking so much heed of the organisation. What especially bothers me is that it is not clear whom I am dealing with when I am approached by Wageningen UR. PPO carries out projects for us. But in some other capacities Wageningen UR takes on the role of controller, and in yet another capacity it is our competitor. It is not clear to me at any given moment who is wearing what hat.”

Bert Visser responded: “Mr Turkensteen’s reaction surprises me. He could have known that I advised him in my capacity as Focal Point, and thus not as a legal controller and not with a Wageningen UR hat on. I did not give him that advice based on the actions of ETC, but because of the negative reactions from the Ethiopian authorities caused by the reports on Soil and Crop in the Dutch media. Together with representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, I did my best to clear up the confusion that S&C itself caused. It is unfortunate that Mr Turkensteen paints this effort made in his own interest as an attempt to stay clean.”
At the request of Visser, Marcel Vernooij, head of Global Cooperation at the International Affairs Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture commented on the case. “The ETC award is based on an initially too-broad text on patents that appeared on the company’s website. At my request, Bert Visser in his capacity as National Focal Point approached the company, after which the website was amended. Then I spoke with the Ethiopian government, which was pleased with the changes to the website and is looking forward to strengthening its cooperation with the Netherlands and with the company. The government also expressed its satisfaction with the cooperation agreement. In Kuala Lumpur I approached ETC and informed them of this. Nevertheless, they found it necessary to proceed with the granting of the award, and were apparently not impeded by these facts.” ETC did not respond to this explanation, which was sent to them by e-mail.

Joris Tielens

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