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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
US tree patent challenged
man cleaning teeth
The neem provides a popular traditional tooth cleaner
By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Environment and development groups are appealing against the granting to the US Government and a multi-national company of a patent on a tree.

The patent was granted to the US Department of Agriculture and the W R Grace corporation.

It allows them to make a fungicide derived from the neem tree, which is indigenous to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On 9 and 10 May the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich, Germany, will hear evidence on the case - in effect, an appeal against the patent.

Critics say the neem has been used for centuries in south Asia, and claim the case typifies the way the patent system is being misused to transfer biological wealth from the poor world.

Earlier challenge

The patent has already been legally challenged, in 1995, by Dr Vandana Shiva, an Indian citizen, Magda Aelvoet (now Belgium's Environment Minister), and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

neem saplings
Young neems awaiting planting
The neem, a member of the mahogany family, is known as Azadirachta indica, derived from the tree's Persian name Azad-Darakth, which means "the free tree".

It has been introduced to many other parts of the world, and flourishes in Africa and Latin America.

The tree is a tropical evergreen which can grow 30 metres (100 ft) tall and 2.5m (8ft) in girth. It has been known to live for more than 200 years.

Fungicide from seeds

In India, neem products have been used for centuries as an insect and pest repellents, in human and animal medicine, and in cosmetics.

The USDA and W R Grace have patented it to cover a method for controlling fungi on plants with an oil extracted from neem seeds.

The 1995 challengers told the EPO that the tree's fungicidal effects had been known and used for centuries.

They said this meant that the patent application lacked two basic requirements for the grant of a European patent, "novelty and inventive step".

man kneeling before tree
The tree is culturally important
The groups bringing the latest challenge say the patent allows the holders to make major financial gains, but means huge cost increases for the tree's traditional users.

"One direct impact of the corporate monopoly on the neem made possible by the patent system is a staggering increase in the companies' demand for seed.

"Almost all the seed collected is now purchased by W R Grace, causing the price to rise beyond the reach of the ordinary people."

Inroads

A spokesman for the British development charity Actionaid, which is involved in the latest appeal, told BBC News Online: "If this succeeds, it will undermine the multi-national companies.

"It will fire a salvo across their bows, and help to stop them making inroads on plants and trees growing in developing countries, as they do at the moment."

A delegation of Indian farmers and scientists is taking 500,000 signatures of Indian citizens to Munich, demanding the withdrawal of this and other patents on neem.

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