BERLIN, May 26 (Reuters) – A deal to market Ethiopia’s staple cereal, teff, to health-conscious Westerners may provide a model for ensuring the benefits of biodiversity are shared between local people and firms exploiting natural resources.
Teff, which looks like wheat and has a sour taste, is free of the protein gluten and research shows it can boost the body’s vitality and reduce fat production.
Realising its potential, Dutch entrepreneur Hans Turkensteen set up a company in 2002 to introduce the crop to the West.
But, aware of concern about “biopiracy” under which foreign companies have been accused of plundering foreign plants or animals, he worked out a deal to give some of the profits to Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries.
The case illustrates one of the most difficult issues at a May 19-30 United Nations conference in Bonn where delegates are discussing ways to protect the diversity of life on earth.
Nearly 200 countries are trying to thrash out a framework for a 2010 deal on binding rules on access to genetic resources and the sharing of their benefits.
Developing nations want to reap financial rewards from natural resources which firms in sectors from pharmaceuticals to horticulture and cosmetics are keen to tap.
“We understood teff was not ours and wanted Ethiopians, who have cultivated, conserved and refined it for centuries to benefit from its use elsewhere,” Turkensteen told Reuters.
Health and Performance Food International (HPFI) signed a deal with the Ethiopian government in 2004 allowing the firm to bring the iron- and calcium-rich cereal to the West, to sell and promote it and to help develop teff-based foods.
HPFI gives 5 percent of its net profits to job-creation projects in Ethiopia, which also gets royalties from the profits on teff seed sales and cash for land cultivated by the firm.
Apart from teff, other deals have been made giving companies access to flowers in South Africa or micro-organisms in Kenya.
“The complexities of the issue are absolutely enormous,” said Rachel Wynberg, co-author of a report on the subject comissioned by the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity.
For example, the pharmaceuticals branch spent about $55 billion on research and development in 2006 but only a small, and unknown, part went on natural products, said Wynberg.
Wynberg says industry should get more closely involved in the U.N. talks on global rules and on compliance mechanisms.
Compounding the problems are ideological differences between firms and governments over “access and benefit sharing”.
“The negotiations are seen as a proxy for addressing huge disparities in income across the world,” Wynberg told Reuters.
Developing countries put a very high value on their genetic resources but often fail to recognise that hefty investment is needed to develop products — and often leads nowhere.
HPFI, which had 2007 turnover of 1 million euros ($1.57 million), has invested 3 million euros and four years of work in researching teff.
It is trying to breed teff seeds outside Africa and is working on gluten-free recipes for bread, cake and beer for consumers allergic to the protein, as well as food for athletes.
All sides agree on the daunting task they face but activists say getting at least a roadmap for the way ahead is crucial.
“We need to send a signal to developing countries to make sure they are respected,” said Greenpeace’s Christoph Then.
By Madeline Chambers, Reuters
Editing by Catherine Evans