The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) originates from the Indian subcontinent and now grows in the dry regions of more than 50 tropical countries around the world. The neem tree has multiple uses. It is mentioned in Indian texts written over 2000 years ago and has been used for centuries by local communities in agriculture as an insect and pest repellent, in human and veterinary medicine, toiletries and cosmetics. It is also venerated in the culture, religions and literature of the region.

Even though first report on pesticide property of neem was reported in India in 1928, only after 30 years later systematic research work on neem was initiated. The past five decades witnessed intensive investigation and upward trend to scientific interest in neem and its diverse properties, resulting in large number of research publications, books and conferences at national and international levels. It led to isolation and identification of hundreds of the active compounds, from various parts with pesticidal, nematicidal, fungicidal, bactericidal, anti inflammatory, anti-tumor and other properties and found its applications in pesticide, medical, healthcare and cosmetic industry all over the world.

Since the 1980s, many neem related process and products have been patented in Japan, USA and European countries. The first US patent was obtained by Terumo Corporation in 1983 for its therapeutic preparation from neem bark. In 1985 Robert Larson from (USDA) obtained a patent for his preparation of neem seed extract and the Environmental Protection Agency approved this product for use in US market. In 1988 Robert Larson sold the patent on an extraction process to the US Company W.R. Grace (presently Certis). Having gathered their patents and clearance from the EPA, four years later, Grace commercialized its product by setting up manufacturing plant in collaboration with P.J. Margo Pvt. Ltd in India and continued to file patents from their own research in USA and other parts of world. Aside from Grace, neem based pesticides were also marketed by another company, AgriDyne Technologies Inc., USA, the market competition between the two companies was intense. In 1994, Grace accused AgriDyne a non-exclusive royalty-bearing license. During this period in India large number of companies also developed stabilized neem products and made them available commercially. The number of patents filed in this period were limited and geographically confined to few countries.

The challenge to a neem based patent held by W.R. Grace & Co. has returned many of intellectual property related issues controversies to center-stage globally.

These two cases not only created a global awareness on neem and its properties but also raised issues on biopiracy, need for documentation of traditional knowledge, equitable sharing of gains from traditional knowledge and harmonization of patent rule. Success of revocation of European patent illustrates the requirement of systematic documentation of knowledge whether traditional or scientific. Further these cases demonstrate the potential of IPR in creating awareness, enthusiasm in scientists, entrepreneurs, organizations and society and increased investments in research and development of products which compete in the market place. This is evident from upward trend of patents filed globally on neem from 1994 – 96 onwards – intense patent debate period and commercial product available in markets from neem.

Largest number of patents is in USA (54) followed by Japan (35), Australia (23), India (14). In India additionally more than 53 patent applications are pending for either gazette notification or opposition since 1995. If granted India will have the largest number of patents in neem. This itself illustrates that IPR does not stifle creativity and innovation but creates challenges and opportunities to over come the existing patents barriers by innovation and invention. There is also an increasing trend of filing application through PCT.

An analysis of type of patents suggests that majority of them are for crop protection applications (63%), followed by health care (13%), industrial (5%), veterinary care (5%), cosmetics (6%) and others (8%). This trend is also shown in country wise granted patents. For example in US out of 54 patents granted 31 were for crop protection rest for healthcare, cosmetics, industrial and veterinary applications. Organization wise patents ownership indicates largest number owned by Certis – W.R. Grace (49) followed by Rohm & Haas (36), CSIR-India (14), Trifolio (9), Bayer (8) and EID Parry (6).

The neem tree has been recognized the world over as a commercial opportunity. This is a welcome sign – but the bio-diversity prospects of this tree cannot be a free access to the entire world. It is now utterly urgent that the genetic fingerprints of our traditional wealth like neem are properly documented. The Neem Foundation has repeatedly pointed out that an immensely potential plant like neem should not be just left unrecognized and unprotected.

Granting neem the status of National Tree would send out the right signals to the world. This one move will help convert a national resource into a national asset.

The Tea Tree of Australia, Gingko Biloba of China, Ginseng of Korea, Guarana of the Amazon and Aloe Vera of Mexico are huge money-spinners in the booming alternate therapy market place of the West. Neem of India can emerge as the biggest player of them all – if India wakes up in time, takes charge and leads by farming policies and encouraging its use in its farmlands and public health programs.

A small country like Korea could successfully globalize its national treasure GINSENG – with an integrated approach, active research and development and positive promotion. It is a hallmark of the success of Korean farmers and Governmental efforts. India must draw lessons from this example.

In early 90s, the European Patent Office granted patents to the US Department of Agriculture and Multinational Agricultural Corporation (W.R. Grace of USA)

The patent was rejected on the basis that products derived from genetic resources (like peanut oil, sugarcane, corn, etc.) can not be patented. There were about 50 companies that tried to get patents on Neem Products and about 70 patents were rejected. This dropped interest of Neem Oil by multinational mega corporations in the agricultural area.