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Neem Seed (India)

One of the most well known examples of bioprospecting is the case of the Neem Tree (a tropical evergreen native to South Asia) in India. Various components of the Neem Tree (bark, leaves, seeds, seed emulsion, etc.), have anti-bacterial qualities and used for centuries in India in a number of ways. For example, Neem twigs are chewed for dental hygienic purposes while the tree's oils are used for making soap, toothpaste and spermicides. Additionally, and most importantly with regards to IPRs, the emulsion from the Neem seed is well known for being a potent pesticide. In the early 1970's a U.S company "discovered" the pesticidal qualities of the Neem seed. In the 1980's the company, W.R. Grace, proceeded to apply for a patent with the European Patent Office. It received the patent, on the grounds that its process for extracting the Neem seed emulsion constituted a unique innovation deserving of protection. The company maintained that its process was an improvement upon the traditional means of extracting Neem seed emulsion, which had been used in India for centuries. After receiving its patent, W.R. Grace began suing Indian companies for producing the emulsion. This had a powerful effect on Indian farmers, who relied on farming as their primary means of subsistence/livelihood. After W.R. Grace received its patent, the price of the Neem seed pesticide (which had once been easily and cheaply attainable) rose dramatically in India, with detrimental effects on Indians (primarily those occupying the lower levels of the social strata). W.R. Grace justified its actions by claiming that it was trying to help the Indian economy, and make the Neem seed pesticide accessible to a wider consumer base. This example illustrates the ways in which Intellectual Property Rights can be used to marginalize and disempower traditional people. International NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were especially cognizant of this, after much outcry, the European Patent Office revoked the patent. According to BBC News reporter Karen Hoggan, the patent was revoked because "a manager of an Indian agriculture company proved that he had been using an extract of Neem tree oil for the same purpose as described in the patent several years before it was filed. For this reason the EPO said the method couldn't be patented." Furthermore, "the decision was hailed by non-governmental organizations as a signal to companies and governments in rich countries that the developing world is going to challenge this type of patent."

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This page last updated on: Friday, 20-Oct-2006 13:15:20 EDT