An interview with Vicki Parsons, founder and CEO of Neem Tree Farms.
1) What is a Neem Tree?
Neem (Azadirachta indica) is known as the “village pharmacy” in its native India where it has been used for nearly 5000 years as a cornerstone of the Ayurvedic tradition. Neem was “discovered” in the western world in 1959 when a German entomologist noticed that the only green standing after a swarm of locusts swept through the Sudan.
Since then, literally hundreds of studies on everything from insects to healthcare have since been completed in laboratories and research stations around the world. Much of that research is online at www.pubmed.com, a website created by the National Institutes of Health. It’s also been grouped with introductions for non-medical professionals at www.usingneem.com.
2) Tell us about your background and how your interest in Neem Trees originated?
I’m actually a journalist and marketing consultant who gardened and rescued dogs as hobbies. I developed a horrible chemical sensitivity in the late 1980s that made it impossible for me to risk exposure to anything toxic, so neem offered an alternative that would let me continue to garden and live with a house full of dogs.
I found a man who had successfully imported neem seeds and was selling the plants in early 1992 and bought a dozen to try. I also bought a copy of a book published by the National Academy Press called “Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems.” My husband and I read it and decided we needed to start growing neem commercially. We planted our first 500 neem trees in 1992, expecting to sell leaves, bark and oil to other companies to be made into final products.
We soon discovered that we’re too far north to grow neem commercially but by then we’d been bitten by the neem bug. About that time, the Internet became a viable marketing opportunity and we created the nation’s first comprehensive website on neem in 1996.
3) What do you believe are the most important attributes of the Neem Tree?
There are dozens of attributes that make neem “a tree for solving global problems,” but government regulations significantly limit my ability to talk about them. While the EPA has approved one line of neem oil to treat pests on plants, it’s not likely to approve a personal insect repellant or treatment for head lice or scabies, although the raw material has been used for thousands of years.
The FDA says that that any herb labeled to treat or prevent a disease must complete the same stringent tests that it requires for prescription pharmaceuticals. It’s a multi-million dollar process to patent extracts from a tree that grows easily almost anywhere in the tropics, so it would be nearly impossible to recover that investment.
That said, I can tell you that it’s an incredible immune system booster because I’m not claiming to treat or prevent a disease. The science goes beyond my limited medical knowledge quickly but the fact that neem increases activity of the cell-mediated immune system is particularly important to most people. Led by “Killer T” cells, the cell-mediated immune system is the body’s first defense against infection. Killer T-cells are able to destroy microbes, viruses and cancer cells by injecting toxic chemicals into the invaders. Neem also boosts the body’s macrophage response, which stimulates the lymphocytic system, and boosts production of white blood cells. (See www.usingneem.com/immuno.pdf for an overview and abstracts on the individual reports.)
Neem is also packed with antioxidants that play a critical role in preventing damage implicated in a wide range of chronic degenerative diseases including atherosclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The ORAC score for neem bark is nearly 500, compared to 15 for broccoli, 62 for blueberries and 95 for cranberries. (See www.usingneem.com/antioxidant.pdf for more information.)
When taken internally, neem leaf and bark also:
- Act as a blood purifier and tonic
- Help maintain healthy liver function
- Maintain an optimum balance between HDL and LDL cholesterol and promote a healthy cardiovascular system
- Aid in a healthy response to minor inflammation
- Improve joint health and mobility
- Stimulate proper bile flow to help maintain healthy digestion, assimilation and elimination.
- Promote respiratory and sinus relief, reduce inflammation of bronchial system and modulate sinus health
- Improve the appearance of skin and help prevent noncystic acne
- Promote healthy teeth and gums
- Support healthy blood sugar levels
4) Name some of the products that have been developed from neem trees.
Literally thousands of neem products are available in the international marketplace, although many products sold in the US are not labeled for the same use as they may be in other countries. Most people who have heard of neem know it as a non-toxic pesticide and fungicide in gardens and organic farms. As more people recognize the issues inherent in products like DEET, lindane and permethrin, we hope neem becomes more widely used in those instances although there are still many regulatory hurdles to be overcome
From my perspective, the best thing about using neem as a pesticide is that we sell skincare products made with similar – or sometimes even stronger – concentrations of neem. That means if I’m spraying a vegetable garden with neem and the wind shifts and I end up with the spray in my face, it’s no more dangerous than the cream I’ve already used to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Neem products like lotion, cream and salve also offer truly amazing results for people with problem skin, even chronic problems that may not respond to modern medicine. One man in Oklahoma, for instance, developed horrible itchy skin as a soldier in the Vietnam War that multiple doctors over the past 25 years had been unable to treat. Our Anti-Itch Formula cleared it up in less than a month. The soap and lotion work wonders on noncystic acne, and we regularly hear from parents who can sleep all night because they’ve started using neem salve on their baby’s itchy patches of skin.
One of our most popular products is a neem bark toothpowder. It’s brown and it isn’t sweet and it doesn’t fizz, but we sell a ton of it because it really does whiten teeth and help keep gums healthy. We’re even working with a large company based in Denver to develop a new line of oral care products they expect to launch later this year with a series of infomercials featuring a neem bark toothpowder.
You can take neem internally as a tea made with raw leaf or bark, but it’s not particularly tasty so we sell capsules as well as a traditional alcohol-based extract and teas flavored with cinnamon or peppermint. I have to admit that the capsules far outsell any of the other products though!
5) Discuss the report mentioned on your website about Neem trees and how they can solve global problems.
We started growing neem based on the indirect advice of the federal government’s National Research Council which published a book called “Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems” in 1992. The book, available at no cost online at NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS detailed how neem was used for everything from pest control to birth control and from oral hygiene to its antibiotic, antiviral and pain-relieving compounds.
While the US government is less enthusiastic about neem today than it was 20 years ago, other governments are making significant investments in neem. Millions of trees have been planted in the southern provinces of China where the trees help prevent erosion on hilly lands and provide non-toxic pesticides to nearby farms. Liberia and Nigeria have both announced major initiatives to plant neem trees in dry areas where nothing else will grow with the multiple objectives of stopping desertification, creating an environmentally sustainable industry in impoverished areas and providing affordable and effective medicine. One clinical study from the University of Nigeria, published in the American Journal of Therapeutics, showed that an acetone-water extract of neem leaf significantly improved both lab results and physical symptoms in volunteers with HIV. In India, where the tree is revered as the “healer of all illness,” dozens of studies are underway with many focused on developing extracts that appear to be preventing cancer in mice.
6) What do you foresee in the future of neem trees and how do you plan to play a part in that future?
My crystal ball doesn’t work well with neem. If you’d asked me 15 years ago, I would have said that neem would now be as widely used as aloe vera with broad support from medical, environmental and economic development organizations for its efficacy, lack of side effects and benefits to local ecosystems and economies. I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened – certainly the international research justifies its increased use. Part of the problem is probably the fact that it’s “too good to be true” and so many herbs have been so overhyped that the medical community and consumers are leery of the latest, greatest product.
My role will continue to evolve as well. Neem Tree Farms will not become a major manufacturer – that doesn’t hold any appeal to me personally – but I’m developing an expertise in creating all-natural neem products that I think will be well received in the market. In the US, most of the major players in the neem industry work together as coopetition – or cooperative competition – and I’ll continue to have an important role in that group as well.