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INDIA'S miracle neem (Azadirachta indica) is moving from the laboratory to the market and many US and Australian firms are getting involved in manufacturing neem-based pesticides. Says Michael O'Shea, managing director of Neemoil Australia Pvt Ltd, "Indian suppliers have been swarming about us like flies around honey."
In USA, a neem-based pesticide, Margosan-O, produced by W R Grace and Co, and a neem extract, Azatin, produced by AgriDyne Technologies Inc, are already in the market. Though both have been approved only for ornamental plants, the US Environment Protection Agency is expected to clear them soon for food crops.
In India, neem's immense export potential is shifting the attention of manufacturers, many of whom have been producing neem-based products for the domestic market only. Even though more than 30 neem-based pesticides are presently being produced in the country, only a few, including Godrej's Achook and ITC's RD-9 Repelin, have been registered with the Central Insecticide Board.
O'Shea and other international pesticide and pharmaceutical manufacturers gathered in Bangalore recently for the fourth World Neem Conference. Sponsored by ITC Ltd, the five-day gathering of businessmen, chemists, entomologists, foresters and medical and health professionals evaluated neem's scientific and commercial potential.
Martin Rice of the University of Queensland, noting the large export potential of neem products, said: "Though many countries in Asia and Africa now have more neem trees, Australia has the vast, empty, dry, tropical areas that would be required for enormous, mechanised neem plantations. Australia may be one of the countries that can produce and export pure azadirachtin (the biologically active ingredient of neem)."
Scientists found an eager audience in potential manufacturers and policy makers attending the conference. Entomologist H Schmutterer of the University of Giessen, Germany, who was among the first to identify and isolate azadirachtin from neem seeds, recalled, "When I first started working on neem, no one had heard of it and thought me crazy. Now everyone is disenchanted with chemical pesticides and so they are interested in neem-based biological pesticides."
Neem extracts have been found to be extremely effective against more than 300 insect species. Primary biologically active ingredients have been isolated and pesticide formulations developed. Efforts to synthesise azadirachtin are also under way and medical use of neem extracts -- from birth control to diabetes control -- are being explored. However, research into neem's medical potential is slow, because of the need for pure and safe drugs.
Neem-based compounds, though effective and safe, are not without their drawbacks. Because the azadirachtin content of neem-based products is difficult to measure and degrades over time, their efficacy is variable. Scientists and manufacturers stress the need to develop methods to measure and standardise azadirachtin. Warned an ITC executive, "People will turn away from neem if it doesn't work every time."
As the demand for azadirachtin-enriched neem extracts has grown, exporters find they are being undercut. "We should concentrate on trying to sell a value added product and not just the commodity," the ITC executive said. "This would prevent the developed world from controlling the price." Some companies now making neem oil-based soaps can sell azadirachtin cheaply because it is produced as a byproduct.
But some scientists warn against an overemphasis on azadirachtin. Entomologist R P Singh of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, pointed out, "Insects can easily develop resistance to the pure active compound. The beauty of neem lies in that it is comprised of a mixture of active ingredients that must be exploited by manufacturers."
One of the major problems with neem seeds is that they rot if not collected at the right time and some foreign manufacturers pointed out rotting neem seeds have a higher-than-permissible level of aflatoxin, a cancer-inducing toxin produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus. "Manufacturers will never be able to register their product as a pesticide in USA if aflatoxin levels are high," cautioned Deepak Bhatnagar, a US Department of Agriculture scientist, who has been working on this problem in other seeds like groundnut. Ironically, Bhatnagar has found that some neem extracts are effective against Aspergillus.
Schmutterer says more research is needed on the spermicidal effect of neem because, "If scientists do discover that neem is an effective spermicide, there is no way it will be accepted in Europe as a foodcrop pesticide."
Assuming that the neem market is likely to grow, there is urgent need to evaluate and collect neem germplasm, say C M Ketkar, an agricultural scientist who has promoted the use of neem in India with missionary zeal, and R C Saxena of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya. Saxena also noted about 95 per cent of neem germplasm is held in India, though a great deal has already been collected and stored in other countries. "Though this tree is native of India," says Saxena, "our scientists and manufacturers are clearly at least 10 years behind those in the developed world."
Meanwhile, an international non-profit agency, Winrock International, has agreed to fund the International Neem Improvement Network, whose task is to collect neem germplasm. And, the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Mettuppalaiyam have collaboration agreements with institutions in south Asia, southeast Asia and Africa, to collect seeds and undertake provenance trials. Also planned is research to increase storage time of neem seeds and to assess their azadirachtin content.
Grassroots workers associated with neem afforestation and neem oil-extracting cooperatives in Asia, Africa and Latin America are facing the problem of not getting neem ecotypes that are appropriate to their habitat. Indians involved with neem say a neem board is needed to ensure a concerted effort to collect, process and market neem seed. Says N G Hegde of BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune, which is involved in neem planting in rural areas, "It is a shame that some US $350 million worth of neem seed is wasted in India each year." Only 25 to 30 per cent of the neem seed is collected or is usable, he added, mainly because of ignorance and poor infrastructural facilities.
The ancients discovered the miracle tree and modern science has rediscovered the value of neem; business firms realise neem's commercial worth and grassroots workers are aware of the tree's potential for wasteland development and rural employment. Now, it is up to the nation's policy makers to take the steps to ensure optimal utilisation of a uniquely Indian resource.