Food giant Nestlé claims to have invented stomach soothing use of habbat al-barakah (Nigella sativa)
by Edward Hammond
Convention on Biological Diversity
The world’s largest food company, Nestlé, is seeking a patent on the use of Nigella sativa to
prevent food allergies, claiming the plant seed and extract when they are used as a food ingredient
or drug. Commonly known as habbat al-barakah in Arabic, and frequently called “black seed”,
“black cumin” or “fennel flower” in English,1 Nigella sativa is an ancient food and medicinal crop.
The Swiss giant’s claims appear invalid, as traditional uses of Nigella sativa clearly anticipate
Nestlé’s patent application, and developing country scholarship has already validated these
traditional uses and further described, in contemporary scientific terms, the very medicinal
properties of black seed that Nestlé seeks to claim as its own “invention”.
The date and location of domestication of Nigella sativa is not clearly established, but the plant
was certainly under wide cultivation more than 3000 years ago, when it was placed in the tomb of
Egyptian King Tutankhamun. Historical evidence also shows contemporaneous, or earlier, black
seed cultivation in Jordan and Iraq. In addition, wild types of Nigella sativa grow in Turkey, Syria,
and Iraq, suggesting domestication may have originally occurred there.2
In ancient times, Nigella sativa cultivation ranged at least from North Africa across the Middle
East and into South Asia, where the plant has also been used in traditional medicine for 1000
years or more. Today, black seed is sown in its traditional range as well as in more southerly
parts of Africa, in Europe, and elsewhere in the world.
Because black seed is widely cultivated, unlike some medicinal plants, obtaining plant seeds is
very easy. The Nestlé Nigella sativa story is instead about how traditional knowledge has been
appropriated. Thus, although the case is unlike biopiracy cases that involve illegal access to rare
or endemic plants, it shares a common theme of many of those cases: corporations claiming
traditional knowledge as their own in patent applications.
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