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02.08.19

Teff is Not an Invention. Teff is Nature.

Posted in Europe, Patents at 4:40 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Last year: Stop Patenting Life, Nature is Not an Invention

Teff

“Eragrostis tef, also known as teff, Williams’ lovegrass or annual bunch grass, is an annual grass, a species of lovegrass native to Ethiopia and Eritrea.” Wikipedia on Teff

Summary: The absurdity of ‘owning’ nature or things that are found in nature (and can reproduce) demonstrated again in Europe

Ethiopia’s Addis Standard has just published this new article about the European Patent Office (EPO) and the teff controversy we alluded to in the past. This is what we ought to call patent “piracy”. When the patents themselves are an act of piracy… patents on life/nature, privatising what’s in the Commons. Ancient seeds… suddenly ‘owned’ by foreign countries or colonialism guarded by patent monopolies that the nation is blackmailed to recognise (by WTO, WIPO and so on).

As Addis Standard put it, “it seems highly unlikely the EPO would have granted the patent if they had this information on file when reviewing the patent application.”

Did they have sufficient time to assess all the facts however? Nowadays examiners complain that they cannot do their work properly. To quote Addis Standard:

On May 19, 2018, the Ethiopian government gave its Attorney General the green light to initiate an international arbitration proceeding against a company holding a series of European patents directed at the grain teff. And on November 21, 2018, a court in The Hague invalidated two of the company’s Dutch patents. For most observers, the news that some obscure company with little connection to Ethiopia, the home of teff, has patented the naturally occurring grain, and as such possesses the legal rights to exclude others from making, using, selling or importing the grain, its flour and any food product made from it, may seem entirely odd. For most Ethiopians, who have cultivated the grain and consumed it as the staple diet injera for millennia, however, the patenting is nothing short of daylight robbery, an act of cultural appropriation made even more objectionable by the whiff of colonial effluvium emanating from the European (Dutch) citizenship of the patentee, Health and Performance Food International B.V. (HPFI). In view of this, it may come as a surprise to many that Ethiopia shares at least some of the blame for HPFI’s patenting of teff, as HPFI was motivated to do so by its mid-2000s agreement with the Ethiopian government to commercialize teff in the western world as a gluten-free food product.

Now that the government is finally moving to address the issue, this article aims to provide some clarity on how the patents were obtained, the scope of the intellectual property (IP) coverage they provide, the invalidation of the Dutch patents and the legal recourse available for the Ethiopian state to invalidate the rest of the patents.

[...]

Increasing the quality of teff by storing it after harvesting, however, is nothing new (even by July 2003 when the first patent application was filed), as any teff farmer in Ethiopia can attest. In Ethiopia, farmers usually store a given season’s harvest for sale and/or consumption during the coming season, as it is common knowledge in the country that when possible, teff should be stored after harvesting to improve its quality. As such, what the inventor claimed, and for which he received patent protection, was neither novel nor inventive, as it has been known and practiced in Ethiopia for millennia. Granted, all that knowledge may not have been documented, which is what patent examiners usually depend on when considering a patent application. All the same, it seems highly unlikely the EPO would have granted the patent if they had this information on file when reviewing the patent application. The EPO had in fact rejected the application initially, but relented only when the patent applicant argued that the minimum falling number of 250 was a “clearly novel and inventive” feature in view of what was known at the time,[8] which, as we just saw was not the case.[9]

This kind of patent is why many people protest outside the EPO. Surely it can’t be overlooked or ignored when EU officials too oppose this.

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