LONDON, England/SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters)—The discovery of coffee plants with naturally low caffeine and high sales potential has sparked an international tug of war over their ownership, according to legal and agricultural experts.
Ethiopia challenges Brazil over ownership of naturally decaffeinated coffee plants collected from the East African country's forestsIn an industry which the International Coffee Organization (ICO) estimated in 2002 generated some $70 billion in global retail sales, the stakes are high as Ethiopia challenges Brazil over the ownership of plants collected from the East African country's forests.
International conventions regulating the ownership of indigenous plants seem to favor Ethiopia, one expert said, but the caffeine-light plants appear to have been collected well before the rules came into effect.
"The convention is not retroactive, so the Brazilian may not be bound by it," the legal source said late on Monday.
Paulo Mazzafera of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil announced his discovery of the first naturally decaffeinated arabica plant in the prestigious science journal Nature last month.
Ethiopian officials reacted angrily, saying they had not been consulted and urging Mazzafera to explain under what conditions he was able to take 6,000 coffee specimens from Ethiopia in the 1980s.
But Mazzafera told Reuters on Tuesday he "had never even been to Ethiopia" and that his find was based on plants collected by a United Nations scientific mission in 1964-65 with the approval of Ethiopia's King Haile Selassie I.
The area was being deforested and there was concern over the survival of the native coffee plants, said Mazzafera. "I doubt these plants exist any longer in the wild."
He said reproductions of the collected beans went to Ethiopia, India, Portugal, Tanzania and Costa Rica. "It was from Costa Rica's collection that Brazil eventually got its seeds in 1973."
Commercial coffee originated in the high forests of southwestern Ethiopia in a region known as Kaffa, which is the eponym of the modern drink in many languages.
Ethiopia is hoping for a mutually agreeable solution.
"We feel that it is possible for us to come up with a 'win-win' solution that would benefit both Ethiopia and Brazil," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told Reuters in Addis Ababa earlier this month.
Mazzafera has been corresponding with Tsedeke Abate, director-general of Ethiopia's Agricultural Research Organization, to discuss possible research projects that could be carried out jointly by the two countries.
"I've proposed searching the remaining material in the collection that Brazil and Ethiopia still have for other decaffeinated varieties," said Mazzafera. "And I would like to see new expeditions in Ethiopia to look for more wild plants."
Experts say the find could have a significant impact on the world coffee market.
"Naturally occurring decaffeinated coffee, rather than something occurring through a chemical process, could provide an important boost to coffee consumption," said David Hallam, chief of the tropical and horticultural products service of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Decaffeinated coffee now accounts for about 10 percent of world's multibillion-dollar consumer market.
Experts say naturally decaffeinated brews could stimulate demand in today's health-conscious market, as decaffeination can involve treating green coffee beans with a chemical solvent to remove the stimulant.
The spat has underscored the potential money at stake over the rights to genetic material of the decaf plants, even though the commercial potential of them is unknown and a product could take at least five years to get to market.
Ownership is still unclear. By generally accepted standards, it is not possible to copyright a living organism unless it has been genetically modified, like Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready Soybeans.
But determining ownership of the new beans will be key to developing them into commercially successful products.
Legal and agriculture experts said that resolving the wrangle surrounding the decaf coffee find could also help settle the issue of compensation for developing countries for plant genetic resources found growing in their back yards by scientists from rich countries.
I'm a social coffee drinker, and the few times I do drink it specifically for the caffeine, the last thing I want is any naturally decaffeinated stuff creeping into my pot. But oh well, big business rules the world.