|For centuries neem has been used by Indians in agriculture, health care, cosmetics, livestock protection, and rituals. Now this extremely useful plant is in danger of becoming the 'intellectual property' of Western scientists and corporations who have taken out various patents for products and processes based on the properties of neem.|
Neem has played a significant role in India for centuries, in fields as diverse as agriculture, public health, medicine, toiletries, cosmetics, livestock protection and rituals. This point comes out strongly in a newly-published book from the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, based in Chennai. It is called Neem: A User's Manual, and is authored by K Vijayalakshmi, K S Radha and Vandana Shiva.
The neem tree has a range of unbelievable properties. For centuries, Indians have used neem twigs for cleaning their teeth, neem leaf juice for treating skin infections, and as a tonic. Chewing 10 neem leaves in the morning for 24 days is believed to protect the body from diabetes and hypertension.
Used in various ways, it can tackle conjunctivitis, jaundice, infantile stomatitis, worms, stomach problems, urinary stones, piles, ear inflammation and other complaints. So much so, the tree has been called a 'village pharmacy'. Neem is mentioned in classical texts of Ayurveda and there are a large number of neem-based Unani preparations. In parts of India, including Karnataka, there is a practice of taking neem leaves in the form of a paste-chutney, to enhance health and resistance to disease on occasions like the ceremony for ancestors, shraddha karma.
Neem plays an important role in pest control, too. It is possible to use neem through its kernel, leaf extract, cake extract and oil spray. Neem-treated gunny bags are also found to be useful for storing grain. Neem extracts keep away bugs. Fumigation with neem leaves repels mosquitoes. Vijayalakshmi el al say that research shows that neem extracts can 'influence' nearly 200 species of insects. Neem kills young cockroaches and inhibits adults from laying eggs. It is even 'extremely successful' in controlling the brown plant hopper (BPH) and other feared rice pests. Neem's exact origin is uncertain, though it could be either in the subcontinent or even South and South-East Asia. Migrating Indians took it to Africa. Neem today grows abundantly between Somalia and Mauritania, and has reached Fiji, the West Indies and Australia. Neem's Persian name in India is Azad-Darakth, or the 'Free Tree', from where its scientific name (Azadirachta indica) is derived. The authors add: 'This book is aimed at keeping this free tree, free.'
Their fear is that neem could now become the 'intellectual property' of Western scientists and corporations. Patents, they point out, have been granted for products and processes based on the various properties of neem. 'Even the processes that have been patented are only minor modifications of processes that have been used for centuries to prepare extracts,' the authors charge.
The link between neem and patents has made for a strange story. In 1971, US timber importer Robert Larson observed the tree's usefulness in India and began importing neem seed. Over the next decade, he conducted safety and performance tests upon a pesticidal neem extract called Margosan-O, and in 1985 received clearance for the project from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Three years later, he sold the patent for the project to the multinational chemical corporation, W R Grace and Company. 'Since 1985, over a dozen US patents have been taken out by US and Japanese firms on formulae for stable neem-based solutions and emulsions and even a neem-based toothpaste,' say the authors.
There is a list of these patents in the book, obviously to counter those who question whether neem or its products have been patented at all. To justify patents, the US position is that there is no patent on Azadirachtin, the natural product found in neem seeds. However, the US Congressional Research Service argued, a synthetic form of this naturally-occurring compound may be patentable, since the synthetic form is not technically a product of nature. So could the process by which it was synthesised.
But, as Indian farmers (besides scientists and political activists) say, foreign multinationals have little right to expropriate the fruit of centuries of indigenous experimentation and decades of Indian scientific research. Oddly, the justification for patents pivots round the claim that modernised extraction processes constitute a genuine innovation. There is also a danger that the raw material - neem seeds and leaves - may be cornered in large quantities by commercial operations, thus making it scarce for the farmer.
Two patent claims of W R Grace have been challenged by research foundations in the West, the Greens in the European Parliament, the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha and others. To tackle what they term 'biopiracy', the authors suggest both resistance to global monopolies and rejuvenation of local tradition. This book aims at the latter, showing how the low-cost use of neem can become an effective biocontrol agent. It fulfils its role in explaining a complex issue lucidly.
Frederick Noronha is a journalist working with Third World Network Features in Goa, India.