This month's discovery of naturally decaffeinated coffee plants (see Natural 'decaf' coffee discovered by Brazilian scientists) has prompted disputes over who owns them. Although the plants were discovered in Brazil, they had been grown from seeds collected in Ethiopia, where officials are demanding an explanation.
Paulo Mazzafera, the Brazilian scientist who reported the finding, says that the plants were grown from seeds collected during UN-sponsored research in the 1960s — with the permission and participation of Ethiopian officials and scientists. Duplicate seed collections from the expedition were stored in Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Portugal, with Brazil acquiring samples from the Costa Rican collection in 1973.
The dispute exemplifies debates about the ownership of and rights to benefit from genetic resources. But the coffee beans in question were collected before the existence of international regulations covering the international movement of biological materials with commercial potential. Both parties now hope to find a solution where both would benefit from the find. Resolving the dispute could help solve the problem of compensating developing nations for native plants discovered by researchers from rich countries.