Wildlife & Biodiversity

Are millets safe from biopiracy?

2023 is the International Year of the Millets and during the year, efforts would be made to promote this superfood

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Monday 02 January 2023
Ethiopia depends extensively on teff, a millet, to fight famine. Photo: iStock.
Ethiopia depends extensively on teff, a millet, to fight famine. Photo: iStock. Ethiopia depends extensively on teff, a millet, to fight famine. Photo: iStock.

2023 is the International Year of the Millets and during the year, efforts would be made to promote this superfood. As millets are adapted to grow in dry and arid regions, they attract big businesses and companies in times when climate change is making cultivation of other cereals difficult.

But these companies tend to forget about community rights when thinking of profits. It would be judicious to put in place a strong system to protect genetic resources and traditional knowledge associated with them.

Also read: COP15: Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted

History is dotted with examples where industry and researchers have accessed millets from developing countries but have failed to share benefits with them — a principle which is at the core of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

Teff, a millet which was domesticated in the Ethiopian highlands around 3,000 years ago, is a case in point. Teff (Eragrostis tef) is an integral part of Ethiopian cuisine and is used to prepare injera, a pancake made from fermented flour — much like India’s dosa.

Ethiopia depends extensively on this climate-resilient plant to fight famine. Additionally, teff is rich in fibre, essential amino acids and minerals such as calcium and iron.

The Netherlands was among the countries to look for profit from this plant. 

In 2003, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization and Dutch company Larenstein Transfer and Soil and Crop Improvement, under which seeds were shared by Ethiopia for research and development purposes.

Also read: Can Montreal help communities: Access and benefit-sharing mechanisms are yet to translate to real gains

But profits from teff were not shared with Ethiopia. Instead, the company filed a patent application on the processing of teff flour and related products in the Netherlands in 2003.

An offshoot of the company filed for a patent at the European Patent Office in 2004 and this was granted in 2007. Ethiopia was not part of these patents.

Due to these patents, anyone using teff flour had to pay a license fee to the Dutch company. The patent was revoked in the Netherlands in 2019 and Germany in 2020 after litigation and will officially expire in other European countries in 2024.

This is not a one-off case of the biopiracy of millets.

Texas A&M University in the United States applied for a patent in 2009 on a gene extracted from sorghum (Kaoliang Sorghum) collected from China. In China, Kaoliang Sorghum is used to prepare a fermented drink.

Texas A&M used the gene to develop agrofuel-producing crops. The same year, USA and Brazil patented a sorghum gene isolated from a variety indigenous to Tanzania, but Tanzania was not mentioned in the application. The gene allows crops to grow in aluminium-rich soils, which are generally toxic to the plant and capable of stunting growth.

Does India need to worry? 

India is home to a variety of major millets, such as jowar (Sorghum bicolor), bajra (Pennisetum glaucum) and ragi (Eleusine coracana).

Other than these, many more small-grained millets such as — kodo (Paspalum scrobiculatum/ kodo millet), kutki (Panicum sumatrense/ little millet), kangni (Setaria italica/ foxtail millet), sama (Echinochloa esculenta/ barnyard millet), proso (Panicum miliaceum/ proso millet) and makra (Urochloa ramosa/Browntop millet) — are part of India’s cuisine.

India would need to be vigilant to ensure that communities that have protected these plants profit from them.

A quick search of patents available on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website (Patent Public Search Basic) shows 42 records for Paspalum scrobiculatum, 85 for Panicum sumatrense, 3,085 for Setaria italica, 1269 for Echinochloa esculenta, 3,740 for Panicum miliaceum and 35 for Urochloa ramosa.

The world has a new tool to ensure that other millets do not face the same future as teff and sorghum. The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted in December and this has specific goals and targets for benefit sharing. All that remains is putting systems in place to meet these goals and targets. 

Read more:

Road to COP15 Montreal: Mexican indigenous groups yet to benefit under Nagoya Protocol; here is why

Road to COP15 Montreal: Indigenous groups in South Africa benefit from rooibos tea industry; here is how

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