6:07 AM Apr 1, 1993


Geneva 1 April (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- A patent application by the US-based University of Toledo on a new use for an Ethiopian plant, Endod, to control zebra mussels clogging water pipes in North America has again spotlighted questions about use of native genes and plants for commercial exploitation through patent rights in the North.

The March 1993 issue of "Rafi Communique", published by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, has highlighted the entire gamut of issues: "transfer of a Third World technology to address a First World problem" and how the people who have "selected" and "cultivated" the plant for centuries and whose native knowledge of uses are now being appropriated and used for commercial benefit.

If the Uruguay Round, and with it the TRIPs agreement is concluded as now drafted, global monopoly profits would be assured to those who patent "traditional" knowledge for new uses and with no "royalty" for the farmers of the South who preserved and maintained this knowledge in the public domain.

Endod or Phytolacca dodecandra, commonly known as the African soapberry plant, is a perennial that has been selected and cultivated for centures in many parts of Africa, where its berries are used as a laundry soap and shampoo. In many African countries Endod is synonymous with 'soap'. People in the Ethiopian highlands use Ednod berries to launder their shamas,the glistening white shawls. The fish-killing property of Endod is also known to them -- with people in rural areas traditionally using Edod as an intoxican to collect edible fish.

The effect of Endod on snails was first observed in 19634 by biologist Aklilu Lemma when conducting field work in his native Ethiopia. He noticed dead snails down river from where people used Endod to wash their closes. After several years of intense research, Dr. Lemma (according to Rafi) discovered that sun-dried and crushed Endod berries were lethal to all major species of snails, but not to animals and humans.

Fresh water snails are carriers of schistosomiasis, a debilitating and eventually fatal tropical disease endemic in 76 countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is next only to Malaria. Over 600 million are at risk of infection, another 200 million are infected and schistosomiasis causes some 200,000 deaths a year.

The discovery of the dried and curshsed Endod berry powder, as a low-cost biodegrdable snail-killing agent or molluscicide, Rafi underlines is a major breakthrough. For, while chemical molluscicides are available they are pretty costly -- a Bayers product, Bayluscide, for example sells for $25000-30000 per ton.

Since the original discovery in 1964, Dr. Lemma has tried to develop Endod as a safe, low-cost alternative to expense chemical molluscicides and field trials in Ethiopia have shown remarkable success.

RAFI quotes Dr. Lemma as saying "Through development and use of simple, appropriate agronomic techniques and extraction and application procedures, people could easily grow, process locally and use Endod products to control schistosomiasis on a community self-help basis."

With support from international donors, extensive agrobotanical and extraction studies on Endod have been undertaken in Ethiopia, Zambia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and, with extensive support from Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), extensive toxicity studies have also been undertaken.

"Unfortunately," Rafi comments, Dr. Lemma's 29-year quest to see Endod widely used in Africa have been repeatedly stalled by international regulatory obstacles.

Though it is out of reach for many developing countires, the Bayers product is the only recommended for use by the WHO, RAFI notes. The WHO "has disregarded Lemma's research (and the traditional wisdom of people who have used Endod for centures), insisting that the scientific analysis conducted in Ethiopia be repeated under standrdized 'good laboratory practices' by international recognized institutions.

Rafi quotes Lemma as saying: "We have learned the hard way that the root problems of scientific research in Africa are not only lack of adequate facilities and funds, but also the biases and reservations of some individuals and organizations in industrialized countries who find it difficult to accept that any good science can come from our part of the world...Also, except for occasional lip service, little credit is given to the wisdom of traditional societies in their ability to select, over long periods of time, such natural products as Endod for their continued and demonstrably safe use."

Lemma and the Endod use as a natural molluscicide didn't win any recognition from established Northern organizations, but in 1989 he and his colleague Dr. legesse Wolde-Yohannnes, received the Right Livelihood Award or the "alternative Nobel Prize".

It is only in 1993 that the WHO has planned large-scale field tests of Endod in Africa and, if successful, would become available as both a molluscicide and natural detergent for village level use.

In addition to use of Endod to control spread of schistosomiasis, Endod powder is also coming to the rescue of the industrialized nations to declog water pipes infested with zebra mussels and costing millions of dollars to municipal water plants and ship-owners trying to get rid their pipes of zebra mussels.

These mussels native to Russia were accidentally introduced into the Great Lakes in 1985 and has rapidly spread throughout the region and are disrupting municipal water facilities by restricting water flow in pipes. They are also a serious threat to fisheries -- by covering the rocks in spawning areas and killing algae. According to a 1990 US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate, the zebra mussel would create a two billion dollar loss to US fisheries by end of the decade.

In 1990, when Dr. lemmma went to the US to receive a honorary degree from the University of Toledo and the question came up in casual conversation, Lemma and his US colleague, biologist Harold Lee tested it in the laboratory and found Endod to be lethal to adult zebra mussels after 4-8 hours exposure, and Endod was also biodegradable in 24 hours.

a few months later, the University of Toledo applied for a US patent on use of Endod for control of zebra mussels. If a commercial product is developed, 50% of the royalties will be shared by the university with Drs. Lee and Peter Fraleigh of the Toledo university and Dr. Lemma, currently with UNICEF in Uganda.

"The application for a US patent," RAFI points out, "raises many questions about the true 'ownership' of Endod and the 'discovery' of this traditional African plant as a control for zebra mussels. This legal claim ignores centuries of indigenous knowledge of Ethiopian people who have cultivated and selected Endod for centuries, using it not only as a detergent and shampoo, but as a fish intoxicant.

"If an Endod-based molluscicide is comercialized, the University of Toledo and three scientists stand to benefit from royalities, but there is no guarantee that the plant's true proprietors, the Ethiopian people, will be justly rewarded," RAFI adds.

If Endod is commercially developed as a molluscicide to control zebra mussels, there would be immediate demand for large quantities of Endod berries. Scientists at Toledo University estimate that treating a 100-million gallon water treatment system at 5 parts per million for 8 hours would require 170,000 gallons of crude Endod extract. Rather than using Edndod in open waters, specialized reactor systems containing the Endod extract would be placed at the entrance to water intake pipes.

According to Dr. Lee, it is possible, but not economicaly feasible, to produce small quantities of the mussel-killing Endod toxin in the laboratory using biosynthesis technique. But such laboratory synthesis has so far proved expensive and tremendous quantities would be needed for commercial use.

Lee says researchers in the US have made an "informal agreement" to buy the raw materials of Endod directly from Ethiopian sources. A new and substantial export market could be created in Ethiopia for Endod as a raw material or processed product. The most potent variety, E-44, has already been cultivated on a large scale by Ethiopian researchers, yielding approximately 1.5 metric tons per hectare. Under optimum conditions there can be two harvests of berries annually and Endod will become a sustainable technology for the problems of both the industrial and Third World development, RAFI concludes.

But the appropriation of the Ethiopian people's collective property as a private patent global monopoly, made possible by the proposed Uruguay Round Trips agreement remains a public policy issue.