Endod: A Case Study of the Use of African

                              Endod: A Case Study of the Use of African

                              Indigenous Knowledge to Address Global Health

                              and Environmental Problems and Environmental Problems

 

                                                                         Rafi  Communique

                                                                         Date: March 30, 1993

                              What Benefit for Ethiopia? New and Controversial Developments in

                              Intellectual Property

 

                              ENDOD: A CASE STUDY

 

                              This issue of RAFI Communique takes a look at the transfer of a Third World

                              technology to address a First World problem: the potential use of a traditional

                              African plant, Endod, to control the infestation of zebra mussels in North American

                              waters. The story of Endod offers a fascinating case study in the application (and

                              obstacles) to the use of a Third World technology to address global health and

                              environmental problems.

 

                              The U.S.-based University of Toledo has applied for a patent on the use of Endod

                              to control zebra mussels, but royalties will not go to the plant's original

                              proprietors"--the Ethiopian people who have selected and cultivated Endod for

                              centuries. Nonetheless, if demand is created for Endod in the industrialized

                              world, will Ethiopian people benefit from their botanical treasure?

 

                              Endod (Phytolacca dodecandra), commonly known as the African soapberry plant,

                              is a perennial that has been selected and cultivated for centuries in many parts

                              of Africa, where its berries are used as a laundry soap and shampoo. Endod is

                              synonymous with "soap" in many African countries. People of the Ethiopian

                              highlands, for instance, use Endod berries to launder their traditional shamas,

                              the glistening white shawls characteristic of the region. The fish-killing property of

                              Endod is also well known and, traditionally, people in rural communities use

                              Endod as an intoxicant to collect edible fish.

 

                              ENDOD TO CONTROL SCHISTOSOMIASIS

                              In 1964, while conducting field work in his native Ethiopia, biologist Aklilu Lemma

                              observed that downstream from where people were washing clothes with the

                              soapberry plant, dead snails were found floating in the water. After several years

                              of intense research, Dr. Lemma discovered that the sun-dried and crushed Endod

                              berries were lethal to all major species of snails--but not harmful to animals or

                              humans, and completely biodegradable.

 

                              For Africa, where one of the most serious tropical diseases, schistosomiasis, is

                              transmitted by freshwater snails, the discovery of a low-cost and biodegradable

                              snail-killing agent (molluscicide) represents a major breakthrough. According to

                              the World Health Organization (WHO), schistosomiasis, a debilitating and

                              eventually fatal disease, is endemic in 76 countries in tropical Africa, Asia and

                              Latin America. Only malaria causes more sickness and debility in the developing

                              world. Over 600 million people are at risk of infection and another 200 million

                              infected. Some 200,000 deaths per year are due to schistosomiasis.

 

                              Although chemical molluscicides are available to eliminate the parasite-carrying

                              snails that transmit schistosomiasis, the cost is prohibitive. A chemical

                              molluscicide called Bayluscide, manufactured by the Bayer Co. of Germany, sells

                              for US $25,000-30,000 per ton. Despite the fact that this expensive chemical

                              compound is out-of-reach for many developing nations, it is the only molluscicide

                              currently recommended by the World Health Organization for global use.

 

                              Over the past 29 years Dr. Lemma's goal has been to develop Endod as a safe,

                              low-cost alternative to expensive chemical molluscicides. Early field trials in one

                              Ethiopian village showed remarkable success. Using locally-collected Endod to kill

                              target snails, transmission of schistosomiasis was reduced from 63% to 33% in

                              the overall population. Among children, the infection rate fell from 50% to 7%. In

                              addition to effectively controlling disease-carrying snails, Dr. Lemma views Endod

                              as a traditional African plant that can be developed as a capacity-building

                              technology by and for African communities. In the words of Dr. Lemma:

 

                              "Through the 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 suppport from international donors, Endod has been the subject of

                              agrobotanical and extraction studies in Ethiopia, Zambia, Swaziland and

                              Zimbabwe. These countries have undertaken research on large-scale cultivation

                              of Endod, processing and distribution of the plant extract for the dual purposes of

                              producing a locally-available molluscicide, and as a detergent for village-level use.

                              In Ethiopia, with support from the Netherlands government, over 500 varieties of

                              Ethiopian soapberry plants were collected under the direction of Dr. Legesse

                              Wolde-Yohannes of the Addis Ababa University. Sixty-five varieties of Endod were

                              cultivated, and 3 selected for their exceptionally high molluscicidal potency and

                              high berry yields. One variety, E-44, was identified as the most promising

                              candidate for molluscicidal properties, and has since been cultivated on an

                              experimental basis. With support from the International Development Research

                              Centre (IDRC) of Canada, extensive toxicity studies of Endod have also been

                              undertaken.

 

                              Unfortunately, Dr. Lemma's 29-year quest to see Endod widely used in Africa has

                              been repeatedly stalled by international regulatory obstacles. Despite rigorous

                              toxicological studies performed by Lemma over the course of two decades, the

                              World Health Organization disregarded Lemma's research (and the traditional

                              wisdom of people who have used Endod for centuries), insisting that the scientific

                              analysis conducted in Ethiopia be repeated under standardized "Good Laboratory

                              Practices" by internationally-recognized institutions. Reflecting on lessons learned

                              from his long struggle to overcome obstacles to widespread acceptance of

                              Endod, Dr Lemma observes:

 

                              "We have learned the hard way that the root problems of scientific research in

                              Africa are not only the 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."

 

                              Much needed and well-deserved support came to Dr. Lemma in 1989 when he

                              and his colleague, Dr. Legesse Wolde-Yohannes, were recipients of the Right

                              Livelihood Award. The "alternative Nobel prize" was awarded them for

                              discovering a natural molluscicide and devising a community-based method of

                              employing it against the snails that carry the schistosomiasis parasite. At long

                              last, WHO plans large-scale field tests of Endod in Africa later in 1993. If

                              successful, Endod may someday become widely available for the dual purposes of

                              providing a molluscicide to control the spread of schistosomiasis, and as a

                              detergent for village-level use.

 

                              ENDOD TO CONTROL ZEBRA MUSSELS

                              A New Use for a Traditional African Plant

                              In addition to the use of Endod to control the spread of a tropical disease

                              afflicting millions of people in the Third World, the traditional African soapberry

                              plant promises to become one of the most effective means of preventing zebra

                              mussels from clogging water intake pipes in North American waters. In other

                              words, a Third World technology comes to the rescue of industrialized nations.

                              Ironically, the need to de-clog mussel-infested water pipes may seem petty in

                              comparison to the value of controlling schistosomiasis, but the economic

                              incentives for controlling zebra mussels are enormous.

 

                              The black and white striped zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) is native to

                              western Russia near the Caspian Sea. Zebra mussels were accidentally

                              introduced into the Great Lakes in 1985, and have rapidly spread throughout the

                              region. The zebra mussels are disrupting municipal water facilities because they

                              restrict water flow by attaching themselves to pipes and other hard surfaces. In

                              addition, they are a serious threat to fisheries because the mussels cover rocks

                              in spawning areas, and remove algae (a source of nutrients) from the water.

                              Municipal water plants and ship owners already spend millions to rid their pipes

                              of zebra mussels. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 1990 that the

                              zebra mussel would create a $2 billion loss to fisheries by the end of the decade.

                              Nobody knows for sure how much damage the zebra mussels will cause, but the

                              potential damage is far greater now that the mussels have spread into inland

                              waterways.

 

                              The discovery that Endod is lethal to the zebra mussel came about when Dr.

                              Aklilu Lemma visited the United States in June, 1990 to receive an honorary

                              degree from the University of Toledo. Lemma and his U.S. colleague, biologist

                              Harold Lee, raised the question in casual conversation, and then tested it in the

                              laboratory. The result: Endod is lethal to adult zebra mussels after 4-8 hours of

                              exposure, and is biodegradable within 24 hours. Safety of Endod has been

                              evaluated by a consortium of laboratories in Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark,

                              Ethiopia and in the USA.

 

                              PATENT PENDING

                              In October, 1990, just a few months after Lee and Lemma first exposed zebra

                              mussels to the Endod powder in the laboratory, the University of Toledo applied

                              for a U.S. patent on the use of Endod to control zebra mussels. If a commercial

                              product is developed in the future, the University of Toledo will share 50% of the

                              royalties with the "inventors", Drs. Harold Lee and Peter Fraleigh of the

                              University of Toledo, and Dr. Aklilu Lemma, who is presently working with the

                              United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Uganda. According to Dr. Lee, several

                              companies have expressed interest in developing a commercial Endod product to

                              control zebra mussels, but he would not reveal their identities because

                              negotiations are still in early stages.

 

                              The application for a U.S. patent on Endod 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 commercialized, the University of Toledo and

                              three scientists stand to benefit from royalties, but there is no guarantee that

                              the plant's true proprietors, the Ethiopian people, will be justly rewarded.

 

                              WHAT BENEFIT FOR ETHIOPIA?

                              If Endod is commercially developed as a molluscicide to control zebra mussels,

                              there would be immediate demand for large quantities of Endod berries. For

                              example, scientists at the University of Toledo estimate that treating a 100

                              million-gallon water treatment system at 5 parts per million for 8 hours would

                              require about 170,000 gallons of crude Endod extract. Rather than using Endod

                              in open waters, specialized reactor systems containing the Endod extract would

                              be placed at the entrance to water intake pipes.

 

                              According to Dr. Harold Lee of the University of Toledo, it is possible, but not

                              economically feasible to produce small quantities of the mussel-killing Endod toxin

                              in the laboratory using a technique known as "biosynthesis." However,

                              laboratory biosynthesis of Endod is far too expensive, and tremendous quantities

                              of the product will be needed for commercial use. Lee says that researchers in

                              the U.S. have made an "informal agreement" to buy raw materials of Endod

                              directly from Ethiopian sources.

 

                              Ideally, a new and substantial export market could be created in Ethiopia for

                              Endod as a raw material or processed product. The most potent variety of Endod,

                              the Ethiopian variety E-44, has already been cultivated on a large-scale by

                              Ethiopian researchers, yielding approximately 1.5 metric tons per hectare of the

                              berries. Under optimum conditions there can be two harvests of berries annually.

                              The outcome remains to be seen. Hopefully, Endod will become a positive

                              example of a sustainable technology for both First World problems and Third

                              World development.

                              ----------------------------------------------------------

 

                              NEW AND CONTROVERSIAL DEVELOPMENTS IN INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

 

                              Agracetus Inc. (Middleton, Wisconsin, USA), a subsidiary of W.R. Grace and Co.,

                              has received a broad-based patent covering all genetically-engineered cotton

                              products. The unusually broad scope of coverage is unprecedented in plant

                              biotechnology and "may be an indication of how major corporations can use

                              biotech patents to get proprietary control of huge segments of agriculture"

                              (AgBiotechnology News, December 1992). Because it was first to develop

                              transgenic cotton, Agracetus claims rights to any and all transgenic cotton,

                              regardless of which engineering technique is used. All transgenic cotton products

                              will have to be licensed through Agracetus before they can enter the

                              marketplace.

 

                              Another broad-based patent was recently granted to Plant Genetic Systems

                              (PGS) of Belgium. The U.S. Patent covers many plants and seeds genetically

                              engineered with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes. According to PGS, it was the

                              first to demonstrate that Bt genes could be engineered into plants and,

                              accordingly, any company that genetically engineers Bt into most plant crops will

                              need to negotiate a licensing agreement with PGS (AgBiotechnology News,

                              February 1993).

 

                              Sources Consulted

                              (1) Lee, Howard and A. Lemma, H. Bennett, 1993, "Towards Control of Zebra

                              Mussels: The Use of Endod, (Phytolacca Dodecandra)" in Zebra Mussel: Biology,

                              Impact and Control, eds. T.F. Nalepa and D.W. Schloesser.

                              (2) Lemma, A., "Overcoming Obstacles to Science from the Third World: The Story

                              of Endod", a paper presented at the Biology Department of the University of

                              Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, on 15 June 1990.

                              (3) "Common African Plant Could Control Zebra Mussels", Press Release from

                              Office of Public Information, University of Toledo, October 15, 1990.

                              (4) Ohio Sea Grant, 1990, "Zebra Mussel Update," in Twine Line, February, p.3.

 

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