Jan 29, 2009

Renewed interest in wonder tree: harnessing neem

It's ironical that the eco-friendly properties of neem, native to the Indian sub-continent, need approval from abroad.

The world is gradually discovering the hidden treasures in neem. In the next five years, the global trade in neem products for pest control, medicines, pharmaceuticals, and toiletries is expected to grow to US $ 500 million.

Realising the immense potention of this wonder tree, massive plantations are comeing upon across globe. China has already overtaken India as the country with the largest number of neem trees. Against an estimated 22 million neem trees in India, China has already planted 25 million trees in Yunan and other southern provinces. Brazil boasts of some 5 million neem trees, and many countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have been on a massive neem planting spree. Tanzania for instance has planted 600,000 trees, and Uganda has another 200,000.

Growing wild in all kinds of soil, including wastelands, the evergreen neem grows even in arid and nutritionally deficient soils. For centuries, Indian farmers have used the traditional wisdom associated with its insect repelling properties. We have heard stories of grandmothers telling us to use neem leaves while packing woollens. We are aware of the role neem can play in warding off insects. But with the advent of DDT, the broad-spectrum pesticide, the entire focus of the government and the private industry shifted to the marketing the chemical pesticide. Neem was slowly relegated to fables.

Native to Indian sub-continent (its origin is traced to Burma), neem certainly opens up a Pandora box when it comes to environment friendly, biodegradable pesticides. What makes it unique is its ability to harm the harmful insects and at the same time boost the role of the beneficial insects like predators, pollinators and parasites. I don’t know of any such environment friendly bio-pesticide that can play this double role. And yet, because the tree grows in our own backyards, we have remained oblivious to nature’s gift that we could have given to the world, provided we had researched and promoted the virtues of this wonder tree.

Recognition has to come from abroad. A report of an ad hoc panel of the Board of Science and Technology for International Development states: “this plant may usher in a new era in pest control, provide millions with inexpensive medicines, cut down the rate of human population growth and even reduce erosion, deforestation, and the excessive temperature of an overheated globe.” Isn’t it sad that we have to be told of neem’s worth by an international panel? Isn’t this a slap on the face of Indian science as well as agriculture?

Neem has more than 100 unique bioactive compounds, which have potential application in agriculture, animal care, public health, and for regulating human fertility, says Dr R C Saxena, chairman of the Neem Foundation. He began his work on neem several decades back at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. He has since been relentlessly advocating neem as a viable alternative to the chemical pesticides. Agriculture scientists, who continue to be in the awe of imported technologies, have still not accepted neem as a viable alternative.

Sounds incredible, but neem affects as many as 537 pest species, including ostracods, mites and ticks, nematodes, some species of snail and fungi, and aflatoxins. What makes its application environmental friendly is its ability to neutralise or incapacitate the pest species rather than killing it instantaneously. Neem therefore does not have a knock-down impact which is immediately visible to the farmers but plays a more powerful role of incapacitating these pests.

A large number of neem-based medicines, pharmaceuticals and toiletries are being manufactured and marketed. Neem oil is in great demand for treating skin infections, ringworm, foot rot, scabies, lice, burn wounds, bruises etc. Not only in humans, the plant-based derivatives are equally effective against ticks, mites, and blood sucking flies in livestock. The use of neem and fertiliser mixtures can increase the efficiency of nutrient availability from chemical fertilisers. Its role in reforestation and rehabilitation of the waste lands has been well documented.

Interestingly, Dr Saxena claims that neem has a cooling effect equivalent to that of ten air-conditioners. The temperature under a full grown neem tree is 10 degrees less than outside, and based on these inherent advantages that flows he has quantified the economics from a neem tree. It provides a lifetime service (considering its life span of 250 years) equivalent to US $ 25,000. But unfortunately, economists fail to add the ecological and economic worth of a standing neem tree while computing the GDP. Multiply US $ 25,000 with 22 million (the number of neem trees in India) and you will understand where the real GDP lies.

Even after the infamous attempts to patent neem properties, we as a nation have failed to realise the economic and ecological strength lying in our own backyards. It is only lately that the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) has launched a nationwide project on the production and promotion of neem based pesticides. The project, being operated in collaboration with the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, is now entering its second phase. It is high time that neem becomes a true symbol of Incredible India.

Deccan Herald, Bangalore; Jan 29, 2009

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