| FNI NEWS
How Ethiopia Lost Control of Its Teff Genetic
In 2005, Ethiopia concluded an agreement with the Dutch company HPFI, sharing
its teff genetic resources in return for a part of the benefits that
would be achieved from developing teff products for the European
In the end, Ethiopia received practically no benefits.
Instead, due to a broad patent and a questionable bankruptcy, it lost its right
to utilize and reap benefits from its own teff genetic resources in the
countries where the patent is valid.
The amazing story of the
Teff Agreement has been uncovered and meticulously documented in a
recent FNI report by FNI researchers Regine Andersen and Tone Winge.
Teff is a food grain endemic to the Ethiopian highlands, where it has
been cultivated for several thousand years. Rich in nutritional value, it is an
important staple crop for Ethiopians. Since it is gluten-free, it is also
interesting for markets in other parts of the world.
A 2005 agreement
between Ethiopia and the Dutch company HPFI gave HPFI access to 12 Ethiopian
teff varieties, which it was to use for developing new teff-based
products for the European market. In return, the company was to share
substantial benefits with Ethiopia.
The Teff Agreement was hailed
as one of the most advanced of its time. It was seen as a pilot case for the
implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in terms of
access to and benefit-sharing from the use of genetic resources
But the high expectations were never met: The only benefits
Ethiopia ever received were 4000 Euro and a small, early interrupted research
And then, in 2009, the company went bankrupt. In the years
prior to bankruptcy, however, HPFI managed to obtain a broad patent on the
processing of teff flour in Europe, covering ripe grain, as well as fine
flour, dough, batter and non-traditional teff products. This patent,
along with other values of the company, had then been transferred to new
companies set up by the same owners.
These companies now possess the
exclusive rights to a large range of teff-based products. But as it was
the now bankrupt HPFI that was Ethiopia's contract partner, these new companies
are not bound by the contractual obligations of HPFI towards
Ethiopia thus ended up receiving practically none of the
benefits promised under the agreement, and its future opportunities to profit
from teff in international markets were smaller than before.
How was this possible?
This is what FNI researchers Regine Andersen and Tone Winge have been looking into in their new
report The Access and Benefit-Sharing
Agreement on Teff Genetic Resources: Facts and Lessons, published by
Their report has been written as part of FNI's contribution
to the German-led ABS Capacity
Development Initiative, focusing on mainly African experiences with
access to and benefit-sharing from the use of their genetic
Lessons to be learned
Through their in-depth analysis of
the course of events with regard to the Teff Agreement and the related
patent on the processing of teff flour, Andersen and Winge attempt to
extract lessons to ensure that future access and benefit-sharing agreements
will have better prospects of success. They also provide recommendations for
the implementation of the CBD. Some of the main conclusions can be summarized
Under the current circumstances, even
the very best ABS agreement is without value if there is no willingness to
comply with it: As long as there are no measures in place in the user-countries
(in the teff case: The Netherlands) such agreements can be seen as
gentlemen's agreements, requiring a basis of good faith.
Provider countries (in the teff case: Ethiopia) need
institutional and financial support to enable them to monitor ABS agreements,
and to facilitate real access to justice in the user countries. A multilateral
instrument for this purpose under the CBD combined with user-country
legislation is probably the most realistic possibility to realize the
objectives on fair and equitable benefit-sharing of the CBD and its Nagoya
Formulations in ABS agreements
prohibiting the patenting of genetic resources may be easy to circumvent, and
more sophisticated formulations should be chosen if this is to be
Download the report
summary in Norwegian (in GENialt)
Read more about FNI's
research on biodiversity and biosafety
Contact person: Regine
|The Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) is an
independent foundation engaged in research on international environmental,
energy, and resource management politics.
The Institute maintains a
multi-disciplinary approach, with main emphasis on political science,
economics, and international law.