Over half of the world's prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first discovered in plants. These include common medications such as oral contraceptives, antibiotics, and painkillers, as well as lifesaving anticancer treatments and heart disease medications. But these medications and their plant derivatives are at risk of disappearing.
Over-harvesting, habitat degradation, and agricultural expansion all threaten these valuable plants; their loss is especially devastating for those who depend on these plants as a means of affordable healthcare, and for some, a livelihood. Alarm over this issue has compelled people to develop approaches to conserve and protect medicinal herbs and plants, including the practices of responsible harvesting and sustainable cultivation.
It's estimated that there are 10,000 plant species throughout the world with medicinal properties. While some of them are rare, others are common garden plants such as Vinca, which is used to make chemotherapies that treat leukemia, lymphoma, and other varieties of cancer. Many drugs like these can still only be derived from the original plant.
The connection between nature and modern medicine goes back long before the time of sterile hospitals, vaccinations, and giant white antibiotic pills.
As far back as 1652, when apothecary Nicholas Culpeper published the first non-religious text on the benefits of herbs and plants, people have been using herbs as a staple medicine. Culpeper's knowledge of natural cures helped patients who normally couldn't afford a doctor's visit, access to cheap local herbs. This in turn enraged "closed shop" investors, who, much like today, wanted to monopolize the drug market.
According to Susan Leopold, executive director of United Plant Savers, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about plant extinction, "A lot of populations are still very dependent on herbal medicine."
For those living on less than two US dollars a day, pharmaceutical drugs aren't an option. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world's developing populations rely on traditional, plant-based medicine as their primary form of healthcare.
"Demand for traditional remedies is also increasing in so-called developed countries, alongside growing environmental-awareness and a desire for natural healing through natural products," author Belinda Hawkins writes in a 2007 report for Botanic Gardens Conservation International.
In an effort to meet this demand, grassroots organizations are promoting organic agricultural practices to secure the future of medicinal crops.
Slanging "sang:" America&'s ginseng debate
Revered in traditional Chinese and folk medicine, ginseng is the top-selling herb in the United States' $3 billion market for medicinal herbs.
As the third largest global producer of ginseng, the US exports nearly 90 percent of its annual yield to East Asia, where native Asian populations have been virtually harvested to extinction in the wild. Subsequently, wild populations of American ginseng have rapidly depleted, which have since been listed as a species that "may become [extinct] unless trade is closely controlled," under the 1975 Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Despite regulatory and conservation efforts, illegal ginseng harvesters or "sang" poachers jeopardize efforts to sustain wild harvests. To help combat this dwindling natural resource, concerned botanists and growers have invested in organically farmed varieties of American ginseng.
Kathy Sego and her husband Roger own Sego's Herb Farm near La Center, Washington, where they have organically grown ginseng since 1998. When they first began business, Canadian suppliers dominated the market, exporting tons of ginseng root to the United States and Asia at incredibly low prices. The yields were high because the Canadian government had subsidized the massive chemical inputs farmers were relying on.
"They were using pounds of really noxious chemicals," Kathy Sego says. "They drove the ginseng market out of the US because they got higher yields."
When the US government found out about the high chemical inputs, they banned the importation of the roots. Today, ginseng is still cultivated in the United States with some chemical inputs. But for the Segos, the decision to cultivate only organically grown products was simple.
"It's just logical," Sego says. &ac"We've always been into supplements, and why would you take supplements with a bunch of chemicals on them? We're creating a much healthier product."
But as only one of two organic ginseng farmers in North America, the majority of American ginseng is either chemically treated or illegally harvested. Despite regulatory efforts by the United States' Fish and Wildlife Service, "sang" hunters and nonorganic ginseng farmers continue to threaten the remaining wild population.
Large herb and spice companies such as Frontier Natural Products Co-Op recognize their customers' demands must be met without destroying the plant populations their businesses depend on.
Frontier created the Well Earth partnership program, which provides resources, support, and grants to herb and spice farmers worldwide. One such farmer is Lorenzo Ich, a cardamom grower in Guatemala, who learned organic farming techniques from a Well Earth supplier. He now receives a premium price for his organic products, which has helped him provide for his family.
According to Kai Stark, a purchasing manager for Frontier, Well Earth farmers reap several key benefits of organic and sustainable farming practices: healthier soil, increased yields, premium prices, and healthier families.
Organically grown products fetch a high price in the global market and keep small family farms possible. Since organic farmers don't use pesticides and herbicides, their expenses tend to be less. Also, some feel their family's health risks are lower because they're not exposed to so many chemicals. Moreover, organic practices help revitalize the soil, which increase yields, cyclically benefitting farmers who in turn are able to maximize profits.
As of 2004, the global trade in medicinal plants is estimated to be worth $60 billion per year, according to the World Bank. Although programs like Well Earth advocate responsible cultivation and harvesting, an estimated 70-80 percent of the medicinal plants being traded are collected from wild populations, according to a 2002 joint report by the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
This increasing global consumption of medicinal herbs threatens to exhaust wild plant populations, as conservation efforts aren't priority over mass production. Plant extinctions today are occurring at a rate 1,000 times higher than they would naturally, with as many as 15,000 medicinal plants under threat.
According to Fred Stevens, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at Oregon State University's College of Pharmacy, 30 percent of drugs come from nature. He speculates the number of potential drugs that could be lost considering the current extinction rate. Without Mother Nature, many medical breakthroughs like the discovery of antibiotics wouldn't have occured.
With dedicated people working toward encouraging responsible cultivation practices within the herb industry, there's a good chance that these plants will be around for the benefit of future generations.
"The chemical diversity of nature is better than the chemical diversity in the lab," Stevens says.
Prunus africana – Pygeum, African cherry
The bark of this tree is harvested and used to treat malaria, fevers, kidney disease, urinary tract infections, and prostate enlargement. The medicinal retail trade for P.africana is estimated to be roughly US $220 million per year. One tree can yield up to US $200 worth of bark, thus sustainable harvesting practices were ignored and it was listed internationally as vulnerable in 1995.
Hoodia gordonii – Hoodia
A slow growing, spiny, succulent plant found throughout southern Africa, this plant was traditionally used by the San bushman as an appetite suppressant. Today, it's used to treat obesity. Of the twelve known types, only one is found abundantly. The other eleven are found in small, scattered populations under threat from over-collection and illegal trade.
Gentiana lutea – Yellow gentian
This plant, which is found in the mountains of central and southern Europe, has been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians as an appetite stimulant. Today, this extremely bitter root is used for treatment of anorexia and to strengthen the digestive system of patients suffering from chronic diseases. G.lutea is harvested in the wild and is now listed as endangered or critically endangered in the European regions where it's found.
Elettaria cardamomum – Cardamom
In Ayurvedic medicine, cardamom is used to treat heart and digestive problems, urinary tract disorders, bronchitis, asthma, infections, and sore throats. In ancient Egypt, the spice was used as a tooth cleaner; the Romans and Greeks used it as a perfume. The small black seeds which form inside ¾ inch long pods are one of the world's most expensive spices, second only to saffron.
Podophyllum hexandrum – Himalayan Mayapple
Found in Nepal and the western Himalayas, this plant contains podophyllin, a resin used to treat ovarian cancer and warts.