Neem is a tree that many would like to know as their sole property. Its name in Swahili is “Mwarobaini” which means “forty” and represents its supposed ability to heal forty diseases. 40, a number which is even seen as an underestimation today. This is why, for the last few decades, many enterprises have been trying to receive patents on several neem products. For example: In 1995, a multinational enterprise took out a patent on a neem-based bio-pesticide from the European Patent Office. As a result, a large price increase for neem seeds in India followed, whereupon small enterprises and small-scale farmers weren’t in funds anymore to buy the seeds. After years of disputes in court, in 2005 the Indian state was granted the right for intellectual property of neem: The court had acknowledged that the fungicidal effect of neem had already been traditionally used in Indian agriculture and medicine for hundreds of years (BBC). This kind of biopiracy, defined as the unrightful appropriation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge (Human Rights), was put to a stop by this decision, at least in this case.
Traditional knowledge, which has been passed on for centuries and generations, does not only have to be protected from commercial interests, but also from oblivion through the local community and this is why: The many parts of the neem tree can namely substitute several hygienic, medicinal as well as pesticidal industrial and often costly products. The neem tree is resistant to drought as it needs only little water, and grows quickly, which makes it ideal for cultivation in Tanzania. On top of that, not only the leaves can be used, but also the seeds and the timber. The leaves, for example, go into action when treating malaria by bringing to a boil around 40 neem leaves and drinking this tea during the course of the day. One has to keep in mind though, that neem products after prolonged application may for example cause liver damage, which is why caution should be exercised especially for inner application (NRC).
The neem’s toxic effect reveals itself in its use in agriculture, where the dried and pounded seeds mixed with water are used as a pesticide. Its mode of action differs from synthetic pesticides, which usually lead to the death of the insects. Neem oil and neem leaves result in disruption of the growth and reproduction process of the insects. The advantage as well as disadvantage is the fact, that neem products are not persistent in nature. This is why it is important to start application at the beginning of the plant’s growth phase and continuously repeat application (IPMP). SAT’s standard for organic pesticides includes mixing the dried and pulverized leaves of the neem tree with other natural repellents, as for example garlic and chili, that keep the insects out due to their spicy taste. Therefore, neem products as pesticides perfectly comply with the character of organic agriculture: Labor-intensive but environment-friendly and viable for small-scale farmers. Besides its use for plant health, neem products also feature positive effects directly for humans. As neem, among others, has antidiabetic, antiviral and antibiotic effects, its oil is used as treatment for a variety of skin diseases and the young twigs of the tree are used for oral hygiene (Hirt 2001).
In a country like Tanzania, where neem trees find climatically favorable conditions and also involve a justifiable amount of effort for small-scale farmers, its cultivation pays off! This makes it all the more important, that the traditional knowledge about the manifold effects of the neem tree remains in the hands of the local communities and is not withdrawn from they through patents.
This article is part of a recurring series on nutrition in connection with sustainability and SATs activities, written by Karin Augsburger, a volunteer at SAT.
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4333627.stm, 27.07.2016.
Humanrights.ch, Traditionelles Wissen – Genetische Ressourcen – Biopiraterie, http://www.humanrights.ch/de/menschenrechte-themen/wto/trips/traditionelles-wissen/, 27.07.2016.
Integrated Pest Management Program (IPMP), http://ipm.uconn.edu/documents/raw2/Neem%20Based%20Insecticides/Neem%20Based%20Insecticides.php?aid=152, 27.07.2016.
Hirt Hans Martin und Bindanda M’Pia, Natural Medicine in the Tropics, Winnenden 2001.
National Research Council (NRC), Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234637/, 27.07.2016.