A patent was awarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the multinational company WR Grace & Co. in 1995 for the fungicidal properties of seeds extracted from the neem tree, native to India. But, the European Parliament’s Green Party, India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements fought to have it revoked on the grounds of biopiracy.

‘Biopiracy’ describes a process in which living resources or traditional knowledge and practises are patented, thus applying intellectual property restrictions to their use. The resources in question are predominantly from developing countries, and are the subject of patent applications by companies in developed countries. The neem tree has been used for thousands of years in India in agriculture, public health, medicine, toiletries, cosmetics and livestock protection. According to advocates of the biopiracy rule, a patent application should always be rejected if there is prior existing knowledge about a product.

The patent was revoked five years after it was awarded, but the decision was appealed by the Department of Agriculture and WR Grace. The decision on March 8 brings the ten-year dispute to a close.

The basis of the challenge to the patent was that the fungicide qualities of the neem tree and its use had been known in India for over 2,000 years. The neem derivatives have also been used traditionally to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics, tooth cleaners and contraceptives. In 1995, WR Grace patented neem-based bio pesticides, including Neemix, for use on food crops. Neemix suppresses insect feeding behaviour and growth in more than 200 species of insects. But the EPO agreed that the process for which the patent had been granted had actually been in use in India for many years.

Biopiracy advocates are trumpeting the decision as a victory in the fight to stop big business exploiting plants and genes at the expense of poor people in the developing world. They believe the livelihoods of poor farmers in developing countries will be undermined.

Granted, patents should not be granted on known materials but many developing countries want to deny patents for new uses of a known product or process, including second use of a medicine. I believe in the old saying that only God works from scratch, the rest of us have to start with known materials. Why would any country want to stifle innovation of new uses for known materials? It sounds a little like cutting of your nose to spite your face.

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