In the early 1980s, images of starving children in drought-stricken landscapes were beamed into lounge rooms around the world as aid organisations made appeals to help the millions of Ethiopians impacted by famine. So powerful were the pictures that many people would still find it hard to believe the country is home to what is widely touted in the Western world as the next superfood.

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A gluten-free cereal that is high in protein, iron and fibre, teff has been cultivated in Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea for at least 2,000 years. In mud huts in the highlands and fine-dining restaurants in the capital Addis Ababa, it is ground into flour and used to make the country’s staple dish, injera. The pancake-like fermented bread is perfect for scooping up meat and vegetable stews and their juices, and most Ethiopians eat it at least once a day.

Like most travellers, I quickly fell in love with its slightly spongy texture and tangy flavour, and found myself ordering it time and time again as we made our way around the country. It is served on a large, round plate with a smattering of colourful concoctions, including lentils, collard greens, yellow beans, lamb, beef and chicken. Breaking it apart and eating it with your hands makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

It is hard to believe, but despite injera’s popularity throughout the country, the patent for the processing of teff flour and related teff products ended up in the hands of a company in the Netherlands.

It all began in 2003, when a dozen varieties of teff seeds were sent to Dutch agronomist Jans Roosjen through a partnership with the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation for research and development. Four years later, the European Patent Office granted a patent to his company Health and Performance Food International (HPFI). While Roosjen overestimated the potential for the seed at the time and his company went bankrupt, he continued to market and sell teff products.

The dispute over who owns teff made international headlines earlier this year after Roosjen tried to sue another Dutch company that was marketing teff baked goods for patent infringement, and his patent was declared void in the Netherlands. When the deadline for an appeal expired in February 2019, many Ethiopians hailed it as a victory on social media.

I hope we can learn from this that our national assets must be protected

Ethiopian diplomat Fitsum Arega tweeted that it was great news. “I hope we can learn from this that our national assets must be protected by Ethiopians & friends of #Ethiopia,” he wrote.

But with Roosjen's patent still in place in other parts of Europe, the war continues. In February, Ethiopia’s attorney general Berhanu Tsegaye tweeted that the government was determined to defend Ethiopia’s legal rights related to teff. “Ethiopia has already deployed a law firm to fight the teff case internationally,” he wrote.

It is not the first time Ethiopia has had to protect one of its biggest products, with the country previously going into battle against Starbucks over the use of three premium coffee names. After intense talks, the world’s largest coffee chain and the Ethiopian government reached a licencing agreement allowing Starbucks to sell and market Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe coffee in 2007. According to a report by the World Intellectual Property Organization, the high-profile dispute greatly increased the value of Ethiopian coffee.

Dr Bula Wayessa, who is an expert in indigenous crops, believes the Dutch teff patent stripped millions of Ethiopian farmers of their rights. “It represents a manifestation of global power relations in which multi-million-dollar corporations based in the global north excise cultural appropriation in Third World countries,” he said. “The flaws in the international legal system that give private companies patent ownership without thorough investigation are disproportionally affecting developing countries such as Ethiopia.”

Dr Wayessa, visiting assistant professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz, was born into a teff-farming family in the Oromia Regional State, which is one of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically based regions. He grew up eating injera twice a day and helped cultivate, tend to and harvest the crop after school and in the summer holidays. “If I had other foods than injera for lunch and dinner, I used to still feel hungry,” he said.

Since leaving his homeland in 2009 to study overseas, Dr Wayessa has returned several times to conduct research. He said teff is not just a crop; it is part of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage. “Teff injera is a major common identity marker across more than 80 ethnic groups living in the country,” he said. “It frames Ethiopians’ indigenous food technology and informs their social and national identities by helping to chart social relationships through gathering around the plate and sharing.”

But while the dispute over teff’s ownership was big news around the globe, Sofonias Melese, head of operations at New Ethiopia Tours, said he only knew about it because he works in the tourism industry, and most of his countrymen weren’t aware of the controversy.

Teff is the backbone of our kitchen

“The patent issue is really sad for me,” he said. “Teff is the backbone of our kitchen. We eat it every day – sometimes three times a day – in almost all regions and tribes.”

Melese said he loves introducing people to injera during his tours. “Most of our tourists first try injera alone, then I can see the sourness in their faces,” he said. “Then I tell them to try it with our spicy wat, which is like a stew, and then they love it. When I tell them it’s gluten-free, high in protein and iron, they get fascinated.”

While its exact age is unclear, archaeologists believe that teff originated and was domesticated in highland Ethiopia about 2,000 years ago, although griddles for baking injera may date back 2,500 years.

Dr Diane Lyons PhD, co-author of Griddles, Ovens, and Agricultural Origins: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Bread Baking in Highland Ethiopia, has conducted extensive research in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where injera is baked on a clay griddle and served with meat, vegetable and legume stews. She said there are two colours of teff grains – white and red. The former has traditionally been considered more valuable and symbolises wealth, and is always served to important guests. Red injera is cheaper and is more commonly used in daily food.

Both Dr Lyons and Dr Wayessa said that teff is now expensive for poorer urban people thanks to global demand. Most farmers in northern and southern Tigray now sell their teff for larger quantities of cheaper grains in the market, such as barley, wheat and sorghum, to make their injera, causing “a loss in culture and a loss in nutrition,” according to Dr Lyons. “[Teff] is usually the cereal used in making injera in restaurants – and always in the finer restaurants in Ethiopia,” she added.

As an outsider, Dr Lyons said it seemed unethical to appropriate Ethiopia’s rights over teff. “This is a very poor country and their ancestors developed this crop,” she said. “They should have the rights to benefit from its marketing. Ethiopians are very proud of their cuisine, and rightly so. Their food is delicious, and teff-based injera is viewed as the best injera by Ethiopians. I sincerely hope they regain ‘full ownership’ over teff.”

I spent two weeks travelling throughout Ethiopia, from Addis Ababa to the Simien Mountains, dining on teff at restaurants daily. Children, raised on the grain, waved and chased our car as we passed them by. We were welcomed into the home of a rural family who showed us the small kitchen where they make injera. For the sake and future of these warm and hospitable people, I can’t help but share the same wish. 

Food Wars is a series from BBC Travel that invites you to feel the heat when passions flare around beloved dishes that shape a culture’s identity.

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