Health: Only big business can save us now

Herbal medicine is responsible for putting 150 species of plants under threat. Or is it?
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The Independent Culture
RATHER LIKE stories involving vicars and choirboys, a report last week about increased demand for herbal medicines threatening plant species with extinction had that extra frisson of hypocrisy. Here were all these morally superior herbalists, preaching holistic and natural healing and meanwhile killing off species faster than an Amazonian logging company.

Well not quite, but the report from Traffic, a division of the World Wide Fund for Nature, found that 150 European species were under threat, including arnica, yellow gentian and paeony. Inevitably, the real story is both more complex and more interesting. What did come as a surprise, even to people in the business, was that most of the 200 herbs we import from Europe are still gathered in the wild.

In eastern Europe, Spain and Turkey collecting herbs is still a traditional way to earn pin money. "Enough to get the children's shoes", as one expert put it. And that is really the heart of the problem. Herbal medicine is, literally in some cases, still a cottage industry. It involves collectors working for very low wages, with little or no supervision. Until recently there hasn't been the money available to upgrade the whole system.

The report recommends various changes, such as switching to commercial cultivation and finding substitutes for plants now at risk. But as far as the industry is concerned, this is pushing at an open door. Many in the business can't wait to go high-tech. "There is a certain romance about herbs gathered in the wild," admits Celia Wright, manager of Higher Nature. "Sales people call it `wild-crafted' but there is no evidence that they are superior; if anything, the opposite is true."

Already some firms, such as the German company Lichtwer Pharma, suppliers of the best-selling St John's wort, used to treat mild depression, have invested a large amount of money in growing their own strains. "The quantity of chemicals found in a species that grows wild can vary a great deal," explains Dick Middleton, a spokesman. "The type of soil, the climate, even when they are picked, can all make a difference. We are dedicated to producing standardised extracts of the plants for use in clinical trials, and also so the customers can be sure of what they are getting." Most of the tea tree and eucalyptus oils imported into this country from Australia come from trees grown on large plantations.

There's also agreement that replacing a plant that is at risk, by another with similar properties, isn't usually a problem. "Manufacturers do tend to be a bit free with what they include in over-the-counter preparations," admits Alison Denham, of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. "For instance, goldenseal, which is at risk, is widely used for hayfever, but it could easily be replaced with various species of berberis that aren't endangered."

In fact, far from being an assault on herbalists, the Traffic report may well mark their coming of age. The medicinal herbs industry of the future has no place for ruddy-faced peasant women, filling their aprons with herbs in the fields and sorting them on the kitchen table. Instead, all the high-tech resources now devoted to flowers and vegetables, will be brought to bear on medicinal herbs: greenhouses, breeding programmes, even genetic engineering.

"We are experimenting with growing plants for multiple uses," says Dr John Wilkinson, senior lecturer in phytochemistry at Middlesex university. "Take the stinging nettle. Traditionally only its leaves are used for a tonic, but the rest of the plant is valuable as well. The leaves are also a good source of chlorophyll dye, the seeds produce an oil and trials show that the root may be good in treating prostate problems. Setting up commercial production of medicinal plants is expensive; this approach makes it much more cost effective." Dr Wilkinson is looking for commercial partners to fund the research.

This approach takes its inspiration from the seemingly endless proliferation of strains of garden plants such as roses. Dr Geoffrey Guy is a self-styled pharmaceutical entrepreneur who hit headlines last week as the first person in this country to gain a licence to grow cannabis and run trials on it.

"All the efforts of rose-growers are concentrated on things such as colour and scent, but you could just as easily breed herbs for different potencies," he says. "In the case of cannabis, the strains around today have been bred to increase the amount of THC - the stuff that gets you high. But for many of the medical applications, what you need is a different alkaloid. I'm developing a strain that has much more of that substance."

Dr Guy's vision involves developing a wide variety of species of herbs, each tailored to different needs. "One might be better for a child, another for a pregnant woman, another for an old person, and so on." His approach also gets round one of the main stumbling-blocks to upgrading the business - the lack of patentability. "Obviously you can't patent a plant," says Dr Guy "but if a rose grower develops a blue rose, for instance, he'll have rights to it. In the same way you could license use of a particular strain of peppermint or passion-flower that you have developed."

As the herbal market becomes more valuable, gathering in the wild is certain to decline. Arnica will be saved and quality standardised. But will there still be enough money for the children's new shoes?