Life-saving medicinal plants under threat from biodiversity erosion | Global Ideas | DW | 11.11.2014
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Global Ideas

Life-saving medicinal plants under threat from biodiversity erosion

As global efforts to prevent biodiversity depletion focus more on fauna than flora, experts call for guidelines to protect against the threatened loss of life-saving plants.

Uprooted, over-harvested, trampled or brashly ignored by the wider world, plants are the unsung heroes of modern medicine. Since time immemorial, species with healing properties have been called upon and indeed relied upon to treat the sick and injured.

And although our modern day brave new world of medical possibility bears little resemblance to the slower pace of ancient indigenous cures, it has not rendered our reliance on the vegetation that coats our earth, obsolete.

On the contrary, medicinal plants continue to play an integral role in the protection of human health. Yet seemingly unmoved by this dynamic, humans largely fail to return that protective favor.

"Medicinal plants don't have a voice," Manoj Kumar Sarkar, author of Management Strategies for Endemic and Threatened Medicinal Plants in India told Global Ideas. "All over the world the expenditure for the protection of fauna is far greater than for flora - including medicinal plants."

The red berries and spindly leaves of the Taxus Baccata plant

Taxus Baccata contains properties which are used in the treatment of different cancers

And that, he says, is a massive oversight. By means of a single example, he cites a species called Taxus Baccata or Taxus Wallichiana that grows in the Himalayas. It contains a property called Taxol, which is used in the treatment of uterine, breast and colon cancer.

"But because of biodiversity destruction, its habitat is being destroyed and that affects plant numbers," he said.

Blind to reality

The fate of Taxus Baccata is shared by thousands of plants on the endangered species list. And with World Health Organization statistics indicating that between 70 and 80 percent of the global population relies on traditional herbal-based medicines to meet their primary health care needs, the situation is precarious.

Danna J Leaman, who chairs the IUCN's Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, told GI that worldwide between 50,000 to 70,000 plants are deemed to have medicinal properties. But of those, only 1,000 are commercially grown.

Leaman says they tend to be species which are more "easily domesticated", and which are "sufficiently economically valuable", with markets stable enough to warrant the requisite investments in land and fertilizers.

A man harvests plants in the wild

In the absense of re-sowing programs, wild harvesting erodes biodiversity

The vast majority of medicinal plants, however, are collected in the wild by private people with few income alternatives. They sell to traders at a cheap rate, which as Sarkar explains, implies a direct threat of over-harvesting.

"In India, the trade is completely controlled by the informal sector," he said, adding that there is no species-specific recovery plan in place to ensure that plants continue to thrive.

The way ahead

Sarkar says the solution is clear, and that it is up to individual governments, particularly those in India and China – where 40 percent of the world's medicinal plants grow - to put serious guidelines and regulations in place.

Essential to the protection process is a structured political approach which ensures the promotion of indigenous knowledge of plants and their medical properties, and investment in teaching and research institutes. Without specific policies in place - be they national or global - many plant species will be lost to general biodiversity erosion and destructive harvesting practices.

FairWild for a sustainable future

Leaman says she has witnessed very little willingness from the commercial sector to engage in any meaningful dialogue on how best to contribute to preventing precious plant resources from being wiped off the face of the planet.

All too often, she says, companies are blind to the implications for their own survival. Against that backdrop, direct communication with the consumer becomes crucial. But that is not without it's own challenges.

Shelves of jars containing different herbal remedies

Each jar contains dries plants with different medicinal properties

"Consumer attention and commitment is not easily won when there is so much competition for people's time and money," Leaman said. "But we are making some good progress on engaging some industry innovators and leaders in a new standard for sustainable wild collection of plants used in food, medicine and cosmetics.”

The FairWild Standard, as it is called, was developed by the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group and other conservation, industry and government organizations. It is the first comprehensive standard for sustainable wild collection that ensures a fair deal for everyone involved so far. Leaman says many companies are already participating.

"I can walk to my local supermarket in Ottawa and buy herbal teas with wild collected ingredients that carry the FairWild logo," she said. "It's a start."