How IP laws can limit research into coffee genetics

  • Research into coffee genetics remains underdeveloped because of low return on investment
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, almost every country in the Global North has 25% of the genetic material for their food, whereas Ethiopia has 95% of it, for example
  • Countries with the capacity to research so are hindered by IP protection measures that make the export of genetic material illegal

THE INTERSECTION of intellectual property (IP) law and coffee genetics is more complex than just the protection of valuable genetic material. Economic dynamics between traditional consuming and producing countries have limited research opportunities on both sides, creating a knock-on effect on the global coffee industry. 

Research into coffee genetics and agricultural practices remains underdeveloped because it is expensive and offers a low return on investment. And considering the lack of funding and development, much knowledge about coffee farming, genetics, and breeding understandably never leaves coffee-growing countries.

“To get a new cultivar requires six generations at least and then it takes at least three to five years for a generation to come into productivity,” says Dr Anja Rahn, independent researcher and author of Economics of Coffee Innovation. “Decades of research are required, and farmers are only buying plants every 20 years. So for any major return on investment you’d need an astronomical amount from a farmer.” 

Nestlé and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development CIRAD are the two major players working on coffee genetics in coffee-producing countries, partnering with research centres there. Nestlé is investing in “Plant Science” research and development through a network of R&D centres, agronomists in producing countries, national agricultural institutes, private partners and local governments. 

Anja highlights the incredible value of the work led by the two organisations within these countries, but points out that there seems to be too much dependence on external funds. “You would expect origin countries to fund this research through their own economies, but their resources are often too scarce, unfortunately,” she says.

While most research centres in developing countries remain sorely underfunded, today’s climate crisis could offer an economic incentive for public investment and a way to capitalise on knowledge at coffee origin. 

Exporting intellectual property is complicated

The cultivation of coffee involves a myriad of genetic variations that contribute to the diverse flavours and qualities found in different coffee varieties. 

IP laws play a pivotal role in safeguarding these unique genetic materials, guaranteeing recognition and economic benefits for breeders and researchers. Through patents, plant variety rights, or trade secrets, coffee breeders can protect their inventions and incentivise further investment in research and development. 

While IP protection encourages innovation, it can also inadvertently hinder the exchange of genetic information and impede scientific progress. Some argue that the enforcement of IP rights in coffee genetics has restricted collaborative research and knowledge sharing, limiting the potential for breakthroughs and advancements in the field. 

This raises concerns, particularly in resource-limited regions, where access to cutting-edge research and technology may be impeded due to proprietary ownership. 

Coffee-producing countries are primarily found in the global South, while the majority of coffee consumption tends to be in wealthier countries. This power dynamic further influences the application of IP law in coffee genetics. 

Historically, the South has been the primary source of plant genetic material, which has empowered many coffee-producing nations. Anja highlights that according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, almost every country in the North has 25% of the genetic material for their food, whereas Ethiopia for example has 95% of it. 

“They have a crazy amount of genetic material that could be exploited and generate remuneration to drive their economy,” says Anja.

However, the ownership and enforcement of IP rights primarily reside in the wealthier, consuming countries. This North-South divide can exacerbate disparities, limiting the ability of developing countries to harness their own genetic resources and hindering their economic independence. 

The paradox

The 1991 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) aimed to address this imbalance by  making it illegal to export intellectual property abroad. But with no way of enforcing international laws across borders, it was ineffective. 

“You could take the seeds or genetic material across the border, research it, patent it, and block that knowledge from being exploited in a different country and take scientific ownership of it,” says Anja. “It was on the limits of what some may consider to be biopiracy.”

The Nagoya Protocol is an international treaty that aims to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources, particularly in the context of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. 

It came into play to enforce the convention domestically, with signatories pledging to enforce the rights in their country, including the European Council, stifling research and innovation in coffee genetics because of the high risk involved. 

Ultimately, the paradox is that countries rich in biodiversity often lack the resources to convert their natural assets into economically valuable IP, while countries with the capacity to do so may be unable to own the genetic material.

Recognising the need for equitable access to coffee genetic material, some collaborative frameworks that facilitate research and exchange of knowledge have been established. Initiatives such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture aim to promote the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the utilisation of genetic resources. 

The treaty has so far facilitated global cooperation, access, and benefit-sharing mechanisms among member countries, gene banks, and other stakeholders. However, challenges remain in its implementation, including issues related to funding, access and benefit-sharing agreements, and the need for greater participation and compliance from member states. 

Ultimately, IP laws are crucial to protect the owners of coffee’s genetic material. But ownership without investment limits innovation and capitalisation on that knowledge. Collaborative frameworks that encourage knowledge sharing and investment in the research communities of coffee growing countries could provide a better balance. But without public intervention, such opportunities are bound to remain few and far between.

Coffee Intelligence

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