Role of Medicinal Plants on National Economy

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Chapter: Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry : Role of Medicinal Plants on National Economy

Since ancient times, mankind all over the world mainly depended upon plant kingdom to meet all their needs of medicines: for alleviating ailments, search for eternal health, longevity and to seek remedy to relieve pain and discomfort, fragrance, favours and foods. It had prompted the early man to explore his immediate natural surrounding and try many plant, animal products, mineral and develop a variety of therapeutic agents.

Role of Medicinal Plants on National Economy



Since ancient times, mankind all over the world mainly depended upon plant kingdom to meet all their needs of medicines: for alleviating ailments, search for eternal health, longevity and to seek remedy to relieve pain and discomfort, fragrance, favours and foods. It had prompted the early man to explore his immediate natural surrounding and try many plant, animal products, mineral and develop a variety of therapeutic agents.


Medicinal plants still play an important role in emerging and developing countries of Asia, both in preventive and curative treatments, despite advances in modern Western medicine. They also generate income to the people of many Asian countries, who earn their livelihood from selling collected materials from the forest or by cultivating on their farms. Thus, the medicinal plants constitute a very important national resource. People in India and China are known to have used plants in organized health care regime for over 5,000 years. European herbal medicines blossomed in the Graeco-Roman era and remained in mainstream until six decades ago. The ancient civilization of India, China, Greece, Arab and other countries of the world developed their own systems of medicine independent of each other, but all of them were predominantly plant based. But the theoretical foundation and the in sights or in depth understanding on the practice of medicine was much superior in ayurveda among organized system of medicine. It is perhaps the oldest (6,000 B.C.) among the organized traditional medicine, People from other countries of the world as China. Cambodia, Indonesia and Baghdad used to come to the ancient universities of India, like Takshila (700 B.C.) and Nalanda (500 B.C.) to learn health sciences of India particularly ayurveda. From history, we learn that since ancient times, plants remained major natural resource in the world.


One of the oldest repositories of human knowledge, the Rig Veda (4500–4600 B.C.) mentioned the use of medicinal plants for the treatment of one or other disease. In the long struggle to overcome the powerful forces of nature, the human beings have always turned to plants. There are reports available about the local communities in the Asian, African and Latin American countries having a long history of dependence on traditional remedies, largely based on plants, for immediate access to relatively safe, cost-effective, efficacious and culturally acceptable solutions to primary health care.


The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 80% of the population of developing countries relies on traditional medicines, mostly plant drugs for their primary health care needs. Even the modern pharmacopoeia still contains at least 25% drugs derived from plants and many others, which are semisynthetic, built on prototype com-pounds isolated from plants. Medicinal plants are the major components of all indigenous or alternative systems of medicine. For example, they are common elements in ayurveda, homoeopathy, naturopathy, Oriental and Native American Indian medicine. Demand for herbal drugs is increasing throughout the world due to growing recognition of natural plant-based products, being nontoxic, having no side effects, easily available at affordable prices and some-times the only source of health care available to the poor. Hence, medicinal plant sector has traditionally occupied an important position in the socio-cultural, spiritual, eco-nomic values of rural and tribal lives of both developing and developed countries. Millions of rural households are using medicinal plants in self-help mode.


About 90% of medicinal plants used by the industries are collected from the wild source. While over 800 species are used by industries, not more than 20 species of plant are under the commercial cultivation. Hence, more than 70% plant collection involved destructive harvesting because of the use of parts like root, bark, stem, wood and whole plant (in the case of herbs). This process is a definite threat to the genetic stock and diversity of medicinal plant resources, and ultimately to the economy of the country if the biodiversity is not sustainably used.

The other main source of medicinal plants is from culti-vation. The cultivated material is definitely more appropriate for use in the production of drugs. Indeed, standardization, whether for pure products, extracts or crude drugs, is criti-cal and becomes easier. Hence, higher cost for cultivated material and cultivation are often done under contract. More recently growers have set up cooperative or collaborative ventures in an attempt to improve their negotiating power and achieve higher prices, and thus medicinal plants in a wider context generate income to the people of many Asian countries who earn their livelihood from selling collected materials from the wild forest, or by cultivating on their farms.


International trade in medicinal plants both within South Asian countries and East Asia, Europe and North America is growing in economic importance, e.g. Nepal is earning an estimated US$ 8.6 million annually from the export of medicinal plants; thus, the medicinal plants and other forest products influence local, national and international economics.


There is widespread belief that ‘green’ drugs are healthier than synthetic product. Recent reports have witnessed an upsurge in the popularity of herbal medicines. In most industrialized countries, use of medicinal plants has increased dramatically in the last decade; there has been a rising trend in Ayurvedic (herbal) products—an area where India’s expertise dates back centuries. But it is not only in the last decade that the country has truly seen the commer-cialization on the herbal concept. Herbal has now become full-fledged wave composing of both in beauty care and health care products. As well as herbal over-the-counter (OTC) drugs have gained substantial ground. Currently, according to industry estimate, total pharmaceutical market is around Rs. 5,000 crore; the total herbal market share is Rs. 1,200 crore, of which the OTC market constitutes around Rs. 400 crore.


The importance and value of traditional and indigenous herbal medicine was the subject of campaign of the WHO. Its effort, in the 1970s, led an appeal to all member countries to do their utmost to preserve their national heritage in the form of ethno-medicine and ethno-pharmacology and to bring back the use of known and tested medicinal plants and derivatives into primary health care in rural areas as alternatives when modern medicines are not available.


In India, plants have been traditionally used for human and veterinary health care and also, in the food and textile industry. Ninety percent of the local food resources known to indigenous people were undocumented to nutritional literature, trade, cosmetics and perfumes; but India has a special position in area of herbal medicines, since it is one of the few countries which are capable of cultivating most of the important plants used both in modern and traditional systems of medicine. This is because India has vast area with wide variation in climate, soil, altitude/latitude and rich flora.


The herbal drug market itself is growing at a rate of between 20% and 30% annually, with individual company registering different growth rates. The healthy growth rate of this market can also be attributed to the government policy of encouraging the manufacturers of purely herbal products. This coupled with absence of any pricing guide-lines. Unlike ‘Drug Price Control Order (DPCO), pricing guidelines for ethical drugs has resulted in this segment being perceived as a highly lucrative alternative source of revenue. The new patent policy under ‘GATT’, which came into effective by the year 2005, has encouraged the herbal market.


While the domestic market (about US$ 1 billion of Ayurvedic medicine) is opening up to the herbal phenom-enon; the export market is also showing promise. Many pharmaceutical companies are targeting export as the prime source in the coming years. World trade in plant medicines is of billions of dollar. In 1994, China exported US$ 5 billion of plant drugs; Germany imported about US$ 105 millions of plant drugs. The number of medicinal plants trade too is astonishing. Now Germany export market is about Rs. 600 crore, and is expected to expand to Rs. 20,000 crore in the next decade. The present export volume of crude drugs from India stands at 36,200 tonnes valued around US$ 24 millions. China and India are two great producers of medicinal plants having more than 40% of global diversity.


In developing countries, plants are the main source of alternative medicine. According to the WHO, as many as 80% of the world’s people rely on traditional medicines for their primary health care, most types of which use remedies from plants. The use of traditional medicine in developing countries is increasing because population is increasing. Government wants to encourage indigenous forms of medicine rather than to rely on imported drugs, and there are strong moves to revive traditional cultures; being easy access and cost effectiveness ultimately affect the national economy.


For example, traditional medicine is an important part of African culture. It varies with cultural group and region. The Western pharmaceuticals are inaccessible especially to rural-based population. Therefore, more than 80% of Afri-cans rely on plant-based medicine. About 70–90% of the population in South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, among others, relies on traditional medicine for their health care. In South Africa, at national level, 20,000 tonnes of medicinal plant materials are traded, corresponding to a value of about US$ 60 millions. In Zambia, trade in traditional medicine is worth over US$ 43 millions per annum. Traditional systems of medicine are also predominant medical systems in practice in Malawian rural areas.


Medicinal plants based medicine also has significant role in most Latin American countries. About 70–80% of the Latin American population relies on traditional medicines for their health care needs. For example, about 80% of  Ecuadorians rely on medicinal plants or products derived from plants. There is lack of access to modern drugs in a significant part of Latin America. In India, annual turnover of herbal industry was estimated around US$ 250 million in 1995. According to Chemexcil report, export value of Ayurvedic and Unani medicine was about US$ 41.6 million during 1999–2000; the major OTC products contribute around US$ 30.5 million.


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