How turmeric lattes signify the need to protect traditional knowledge on an international level

Turmeric lattes are gaining international popularity but they also symbolize the threat faced by traditional knowledge with commercial exploitation. The Guardian reported that cafes and restaurants from across Sydney to San Francisco have introduced the drink - a combination of milk and ground haldi (turmeric), to their menu. Google singled out turmeric latte as a top search term associated with the spice and reported a steep increase in online searches for the spice by 56% from November 2015 to January 2016.

However, the use of turmeric in milk is not something new. More commonly known as haldi doodh in India, it has been consumed for centuries in India to treat sore throat and cough. Turmeric, the active ingredient in turmeric milk has important medicinal properties. It purifies blood, alleviates headaches, and can keep organs like the skin and lungs healthy.

Today, traditional knowledge such as that associated with turmeric is vulnerable to commercial exploitation. A patent initially awarded to an American university for the exclusive right to sell and distribute turmeric was invalidated after allegations of biopiracy arose. It was discovered that the grounds under which the patent was initially awarded were already known. The patenting of Indian neem plant is another example of traditional knowledge threatened by biopiracy. The patent was revoked on the grounds of “lack of novelty and inventive step.”

As for turmeric latte, which is part of traditional knowledge, how can it be protected from foreign restaurants and cafes who market the product? Could an ABS mechanism apply? Here, existing IP laws are not useful because the knowledge associated with the drink has existed for a long time. What’s needed are laws that enable protection of traditional knowledge at an international level. This is what the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Generic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore is trying to achieve by engaging in negotiations with member states. A benefit sharing mechanism can be implemented that requires part of the revenue made from the drink to go towards to provider country or community for development purposes. Restaurants and cafes who sell the drink could be bound by a common agreement that mandates benefit sharing.

There are several challenges and concerns that would need to be addressed before a mechanism like this can be adopted. Many countries have not yet introduced ABS laws and regulations. Developing and implementing measures can be complicated due to diverse stakeholder interests and in some cases, difficulties can arise from a lack of awareness of what ABS is. Even in countries that have introduced ABS measures, regulating non-compliance is a challenge. If traditional knowledge from a provider country is used in another country, there currently lacks an international compliance mechanism to monitor to ensure that ABS standards are in place. Also, attributing knowledge to local and traditional communities can be difficult when the knowledge is not endemic to one country. These questions will need to be addressed before international ABS policies can be widely adopted to protect traditional knowledge. This is why international discussions on these issues are crucial in gaining support and mutual understanding from a range of stakeholder including government, non-profit and communities.


Additional references:

  1.  Siebenhüner, Bernd & Jessica Suplie. “Implementing the access and benefit-sharing provisions of the CBD: A case for institutional learning” (2005) 53 Ecological Economics 507, online: <https://www.cbd.int/doc/articles/2005/A-00339.pdf>.
  2. Singletary, Keith. “Turmeric: An overview of potential health benefits” (2010) 45:5 Nutrition Today 216.
  3. “Traditional Knowledge: The Curious Case of Turmeric Latte” (10 Jun 2016), Banana IP, online: <http://www.bananaip.com/ip-news-center/traditional-knowledgethe-curious-case-turmeric-latte>.

Photo credit: "Turmeric Vanilla Latte" by Alexa and Jennifer

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