Neemm manim, what else

RECENT news reports regarding the patenting of neem have left me completely baffled. It needs to be noted that the use of neem extract, seeds, leaves or any other part as pesticide cannot be patented, since such uses have been known for hundreds of years. Neem seed, being a product of nature, is not patentable. Patents have been granted for (i) "extracts from pre-treated neem bark shown to be effective against certain cancers (us Pat No 4,537,774)" (it) "azadirachtin extracted from neem seeds in a stable storage form (us Pat No 4,556,562)" and (iii) "azadirachtin -derivative insecticides which have greater stability than the naturally occurring form of azadirachtin (us Pat No 5,047,242)". There is no patent on azadirachtin because it is recognised as a product of nature. But a synthetic analogue of a naturally occurring product is patentable.

Why can the use of neem as a pesticide not be patented? Studies of the active principle azadirachtin, leading to its isolation and identification, have been in progress for quite some time now. The properties of this compound as growth regulator and reproduction-inhibitor against a number of insects were reviewed by Warthen (1979), Subramanyam (1990) and Schumutterer( 1990).

The Chemical Fcology of Phytophagous Insects (ed Ananthakrishoan and Raman) lists various products made of neem, which include Margosan-o (W R Grace, us), Azatin (Agrodyne, us) ALhook (Godrej Soap Pvt Ltd, Bombay), Neemgold (SPIC Ltd, Madras), Replin (ITc Ltd, Hyderabad) and Margocicle cK (Monofix Agro Prod Ltd, Hubli).

In addition, one of my former students has set up a plant recently for neem-based pesticides in Belgam using a stable form of azadirachtin. One of the principal reasons why many neem-based products have not succeeded in the market is the relative instability of this compound in sunlight.

All this points to the fact that while farmers have been using neem products for controlling pests for thousands of years, scientists and companies have also been looking at ways of making products out of neem for some three decades or more. Companies are, of course, free to make any product based on the available scientific information. None of them, however, pay any special price to those from whom they collect the neem seed.

But this scenario may change. Leaves, bark or seeds of neem could be in great demand in the future. I see that as a positive contribution to the causes of both economic development and conservation. When the Khadt and Village Industries Commission started the use of non-edible oil seeds for making soaps, it led to an appreciable increase in emp Trient opportunities for the poor in India.

The danger of overexploiration is remote, at least case. Neem seeds have very lowdormancy; they germination die if not collected immediately. In any case, peoplewhole neem need to renew their plantation regularly. Neem gr well in sandy, semi-arid soils. in these conditions, the not many attractive alternative choices left for the people.

There is little basis for the assumption that supply A increase with a concurrent increase in demand. Would it be more desirable that diversified tree complexes came such regions not because somebody is subsidising the but because the demand for their product is on the incorrect This demand could give a. fillip to the programmes for social and farm forestry.

Nothing prevents us from developing patentable technologies and making them available to everybody without restrictions. Those who want to use neern in its crude form or azadirachtin derived from known unpatented methods can still do it. Will value addition force it out of the reach of the poor? The poor would probably be able to afford the product more easily if it is made by the decentralised but competitive small sector. Rumitiating on who makes it - so long as it reaches the poor - serves no purpose.

To me, what is of greater consequence is the continued neglect of large number of other plants like calotropis which have great promise as herbal pesticides. After a few years, when Western scientists go on to inevitably develop patentable products based on these plants as well, we will be back to voicing strident protests. I appreciate the need for Western companies (which have developed neem-based products) to invest a part of their profits in an international fund for helping small communities in conserving biodiversity. Since neem and its manifold uses are known in African and Latin American countries as well, there is no reason why India alone should be the beneficiary of such a fund.

It is true that the traditional knowledge of farmers steered scientists to this possible source of pesticides. The companies should share some part of their profits on this account.

Patents on new ways of extracting active compounds - in more stable, purer fQrms or for novel uses - should be welcome. How much the returns on these patents should be, who should have a share in it and how should such returns accrue are matters which need to be seriously debated. But spreading absurd claims about patenting the neem tree shows us in poor light; when truth is a casualty, the interests of science and society are bound to suffer.

Let me assure all that nobody can take away a farmer'srights to reuse his own seeds. With or without GATT. If any thing at all, it will be lack of demand for his products which may force him to cut neem trees and sell them off. It is in his interest that 'he is able to sell extra seeds that he does not need at attractive prices. His so called benefactors have not told him that prices increase when demand increases. And technology of value addition helps achieve that goal.

At a rhetorical level, let me ask a few questions: What is a farmer's choice? Should he use chemical pesticides in the face of onslaught ofpests on his crops? Is a raw extract always more efficient? Should we oppose value addition in plant products? Why is not such a question raised about the crops that the green revolution farmers raise? If good and cheap neem-based products are introduced in the market, who will or can benefit? Should an attempt be made to ensure that neern growers get attractive prices or own factories that process the seeds, or should we try to depress the demand for their products so that they remain perpetually dopendent on lazy intellectuals or largess distributed. by insensitive governments in the form of food for 'unskilled' work? Is neem the only plant of pesticidal importance? Are Indian scientific institutioiis devoting any attention to the development of herbal pesticides? Will only Western companies win the game of patenting? Can Indian inventors, innovators and creative farmers file applications for patents in us or wherever product patents are allowed?

Indian patent acts must be modified to allow product patents so that native genius can aspire for global markets for their innovations, particularly for sustainable development, a field in which India could be a world leader, thanks to the millions of creative farmers, artisans, fishermen and women whose knowledge we do not value or reward. There are no farmers' agitations against continued deprivation of the poor in biodiversity-rich and economically poor regions like the hill areas, forests or drought-prone areas. Why then are we making an issue of neem? Is it because increase in the income of growers and seed collectors of neem and other such trees and herbs in the dry regions will deprive urban and rich people of cheap labour?

Probably not. Probably social and intellectual inertia has generated a good market in India for halfbaked theories and populist slogans, even if they are based on grossly inaccurate information. Incidentally, it is not just W R Grace but our very own Godrej Soaps as well that has a patent (No 5298257) on "neern oil fatty acid distillation residue based pesticide". Why make an unnecessary fuss about something as inconceivable as patents on neem?